- Time and date: Saturday, September 9 at 4:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — Greenville, NC
- Spread: Marshall (-3)
- Over/under: 44
- All-time series: East Carolina leads, 11-5
- Last meeting: East Carolina 42, Marshall 38 — September 18, 2021
- Current streak: East Carolina, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
These two programs are forever connected by the number 75. That number, which Marshall sometimes inscribes on its helmets, represents the 75 passengers that were killed on a Nov. 14, 1970 flight. Southern Airways Flight 932 crashed into a field in West Virginia while transporting the Marshall football team back from North Carolina, after the Thundering Herd played a road game at East Carolina.
East Carolina and Marshall continue to commemorate the 75 every time the programs meet on the gridiron. Members of the 1970 East Carolina football team are expected to be in attendance in Greenville this Saturday as the programs square off for the first time since 2021 and the second time since separating conferences in 2014.
Marshall Thundering Herd outlook
Marshall is 1-0, and mathematically speaking, that’s the best the program could possibly be at the moment. But Saturday’s matchup against Albany of the FCS was a concerning performance for the Thundering Herd. Marshall won 21-17 in a test of resiliency, spurring a 10-point second half comeback to upend the FCS foe. Thanks to a second half revival, the Thundering Herd are now victors of six consecutive games — tied for the sixth longest streak in the FBS.
Under third-year head coach Charles Huff, the Thundering Herd typically impose their will on the defensive side. In 2022, Marshall ranked sixth in the country in fewest points allowed and eighth in fewest yards allowed, exuding one of the strongest run defenses in the entire FBS. Last year, they were fourth overall in stifling the run, holding opponents to 93 yards per game on a 2.9 average.
Albany posted two sustained third quarter touchdown drives on the Thundering Herd, but outside of that two-drive sequence, Marshall brought that same tenacious defense into 2023. The Herd forced six punts, two fourth down stops, and limited their opponent to 4-of-16 on third downs. Albany averaged 2.9 yards per carry as a rushing attack and failed to exceed the 200-yard threshold through the air. Marshall’s defense overwhelmingly dominated in the trenches, producing seven sacks in Week 1 — an exorbitant amount only trailing North Carolina.
The pass rush was spearheaded by defensive end Sam Burton, who racked up a team-best 2.5 sacks on his own. But East Carolina’s eyes will primarily be focused on reigning First Team All-Sun Belt defensive end Owen Porter, who also had a monstrous opener. Porter registered 12 tackles, one sack, and 2.5 tackles for loss in the low-scoring bout — off to a great start for a second consecutive first team all-conference selection.
Porter isn’t the only returning Marshall defender to attain that honor in 2022. Cornerback Micah Abraham also appeared on the list after hauling in a Sun Belt best six interceptions. Abraham is a polished ballhawk, totaling 14 pass breakups in 2021 (fourth in FBS) before adding another 10 last year. The Pirates should be wary when targeting No. 6 because the result often goes in the Thundering Herd’s favor. One other Marshall defender to watch is inside linebacker Eli Neal, who contributed seven tackles in the opener after posting 95+ each of the previous two seasons.
Marshall’s defense remains sharp, but questions still linger about the offense. But the Thundering Herd showcase a star in the backfield which is a strong foundation to build around. Running back Rasheen Ali missed the majority of 2022 due to personal matters, but the 2021 FBS rushing touchdowns leader is back in the lineup, and he hasn’t a missed he beat. He posted 137 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Albany, and it would have been more if his 73-yard run on the first play from scrimmage wasn’t called back due to holding.
Ali will be the focus of ECU’s defense, but Marshall’s passing offense can be respectable at times as well. Cam Fancher remains the starting quarterback after assuming the role in the middle of the 2022 season. Fancher’s 2023 debut was decent, completing 28-of-35 passes for 268 yards as one of the architects of the comeback, but Marshall must execute on critical downs. That was the team’s greatest weakness in Week 1, and finishing 1-of-10 on third downs is why the score was so tightly-contested.
East Carolina Pirates outlook
The rebirth of East Carolina football in the Mike Houston era does not have an official date, but the program seemed to gain its mojo on Sept. 18, 2021. Trailing 38-21 to Marshall, the Pirates rattled off three touchdowns in the final eight minutes to secure a 42-38 road win, a victory which rippled into the program’s first winning season since 2014.
The Pirates remained a winning program in 2022 with an 8-5 record and their first bowl win in nine years, but sustaining that excellence will be much tougher in 2023. A severe lack of offensive starters return, as only tight end Shane Calhoun and right guard Isaiah Foote started the majority of the team’s 13 games in 2022.
That lack of returning talent was evident in the team’s 30-3 loss to Michigan. But on the bright side, the Wolverines are back-to-back College Football Playoff participants with a horde of returning talent, and that’s the result most teams in America would expect against Michigan. So not all is grim for this reloading Pirate team, which remains in search of its first touchdown of 2023.
ECU is led by 6’5”, 249 pound quarterback Mason Garcia. The redshirt sophomore spent three seasons as an understudy to program legend Holton Ahlers, but Saturday in the Big House was just his second career start. He finished 11-of-18 for 80 yards, throwing one interception in the 27-point defeat. But the powerful quarterback proved his rushing ability with 36 yards on eight attempts Saturday, and he’ll look to utilize that mobility against a sturdy Marshall defense.
The rest of the rushing production should be handled by the duo of Rahjai Harris and Marlon Gunn Jr. The tandem combined for 38 yards on 10 carries, and while Michigan is usually an outlier run defense, Marshall has been just as potent as any FBS team in this facet of the game.
Marshall’s defensive dominance won’t only make establishing the run difficult, but the Pirates’ offensive line will be challenged in pass protection. Garcia must buy ample time to find targets such as Jaylen Johnson, Jsi Hatfield, and veteran tight end Shane Calhoun in order to move the sticks with more success than the offense did in Week 1.
Defensively, East Carolina only yielded 30 points to the Big Ten juggernaut, but most of those stops transpired against the second team offense in the second half when the game was all but decided. Still, the Pirates showed hints of success, specifically against the Michigan run game. They limited explosive tailback Donovan Edwards to 3.1 yards per carry on a Wolverine-high 12 attempts. Five tackles for loss were produced, and that backfield invasion was captained by defensive tackle Elijah Morris and free safety Julius Wood.
Wood is one of the premier defenders to watch on his new-look Pirate team. The senior is fresh off a breakout season featuring 87 tackles, two interceptions, and three forced fumbles, and his omnipresent playmaking ability will be essential to countering both Rasheen Ali and Cam Fancher when ECU is on defense.
Defense, defense, defense. Don’t expect a bevy of points in this one. Marshall turns every game into an ugly contest where points are at a premium and forces each opponent to play its style. Not a single of Marshall’s last 11 opponents exceeded 23 points and of those 11 teams, eight scored 14 points or fewer.
Considering how overhauled East Carolina’s offense is from the unit which produced 32.5 points per game in 2022, the Pirates will likely be subject to the defensive machine which is the Thundering Herd. Establishing the run on Marshall is not a simple task, and the Pirates might require a massive day from Mason Garcia in order to keep their side of the scoreboard active.
But in the end, Rasheen Ali presents a formidable enough threat to ECU’s defense to get the job done for the Thundering Herd on the road.
Prediction: Marshall 19, East Carolina 14