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Game 11: Marshall 26, ECU 7


Game Slants
Sunday, November 11, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Pirates lack championship punch

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

HUNTINGTON, WV — In this perplexing season of college football upsets, East Carolina’s quest for a Conference USA championship couldn’t find immunity.

With the road to the league title game paved with two league cupcakes, the Pirates looked more like the soft dessert to complete Marshall’s conference meal. And instead of ECU dropping the hammer on the league cellar dweller, it looked more like the bottom feeder in this lopsided match-up.

That the Pirates could perform with so little purpose is mind-bending considering both the stakes and the setting. ECU was the one with a championship in sight, and it by far possessed the better overall personnel on the field and staff on the sidelines.

Marshall must have missed the memo.

The Herd was supposedly DOA and should have played a gracious host to East Carolina’s Cirque-de-Touchdown Tour. Instead, the Herd defense decided to stage an impressive show of its own, limiting the Pirates to 92 first-half yards and an oversized bagel on the scoreboard.

Meanwhile, the Herd offense continued that painfully familiar trend of proficient passing against ECU’s inept secondary.

“I was very impressed with (Marshall QB Bernard) Morris,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said after the game. “I think the opening drive is probably an example of a lot of what happened in this game.

“We kind of dropped out and played a lot of zone coverage and he turned, and he’s very patient, and he’s very accurate. He took the underneath stuff, and they took about a nine-minute drive down the field and they scored.”

It’s not like this Marshall team boasted Chad Pennington or Randy Moss. And, no, that wasn’t Byron Leftwich manning the huddle, instead a less heralded but impressively accurate Morris.

He skillfully diced East Carolina’s secondary as the Herd completely controlled the Pirates from the opening kick, owning the ball for nearly 38 minutes of valuable clock. Morris completed 24-of-32 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 126 and a 75-yard score.

All totaled, the Marshall offense ransacked the Pirates for 477 total yards, and it could have been more had it not released the accelerator slightly in the fourth quarter.

But as bad as ECU’s defense is — and it has been borderline embarrassing at times — it’s not the fundamental reason behind this bone-numbing loss. The Pirates’ inability to establish any rhythm offensively, more than anything, sent ECU home with a sour stomach.

“We did not play one of our better games on offense,” Holtz said. “We couldn’t make first downs.

“I think a lot of that is attributed to their defense. I think their linebackers are very aggressive. They played extremely physical, and I thought they owned the line of scrimmage. I know Coach (Mark) Snyder made a big point last week about losing the line of scrimmage.”

Point taken.

Marshall shoved East Carolina around like a backyard bully, delivering most of the punishing blows and winning almost every scrum. About the only time the Pirates displayed any sort of swagger was with an occasional push or verbal lashing long after the whistle was blown.

“Very frustrating,” ECU senior offensive lineman Josh Coffman said. “We had our opportunities, but couldn’t take advantage of them.

“Our coaches prepared us for pretty much everything they were doing. They executed it well. That might have contributed to our slow start, but I feel like we kind of shot ourselves in the foot a few times today. It’s tough to succeed when you do that.”

It’s also tough to digest the fact that ECU managed only a touchdown against a defense that surrendered 48 to New Hampshire. That’s I-AA New Hampshire, which routed the Herd on the same field where the Pirates were soundly pummeled.

That’s pretty discouraging, especially when you consider the mantra within the East Carolina program since its loss to N.C. State.

Holtz labeled the final stretch of C-USA games as the Pirates’ Final Four C-USA Tour, a motivational tool to keep his players firmly focused on the goals that were established before the season began. This was ECU’s March, its chance to prove itself a champion in a true test of survive and advance.

But it takes more than a catchy battle cry for a team to hit its targets. It takes execution, steady improvement, focus and a killer instinct — none of which were on display against Marshall.

Truthfully, East Carolina might never again experience a season in which the final stretch is lined with a more direct route to the conference championship game. After completing most of its heavy lifting during the top half of its schedule, ECU faced a four-week breather compared with much of September and October.

Well, ECU took a three-hour breather against Marshall. That’s hardly a characteristic that defines a champion.

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11/11/2007 02:19:25 AM

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