HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -There's nowhere to hide for East Carolina and Marshall University.
The two football teams hook up for a noon kickoff today in Huntington, W.Va., with Conference USA's East Division title at stake.
East Carolina (9-2, 6-1) is fresh off an impressive 42-28 win at North Carolina State, while Marshall (8-3, 6-1) won its fourth consecutive game after pounding Florida Atlantic 48-10 last Saturday in Miami, Fla.
"Ultimately, at the beginning of the year this is where we said we wanted to be and probably had a pretty good idea that it would be against ECU," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. "Our kids know that we now have ourselves in this position, and now we have to go and prepare like crazy for it."
If past history means anything, expect today's game to go down to the wire. Of their 14 previous meetings, three games have been decided in overtime - including last year's 65-59 double-overtime win by East Carolina in Greenville, N.C. which closed out five consecutive league wins by the Pirates.
During the Pirates' current five-game winning streak, they have averaged 50.4 points per game. Partly responsible for their success is quarterback Shane Carden, who has completed 72.8 percent (329-of-452) of his passes for 3,575 yards and 32 touchdowns. He has been intercepted just seven times.
Who: East Carolina (9-2,
6-1) at Marshall (8-3, 6-1)
Where: Huntington, W.Va.
When: noon, today
Carden's counterpart is Marshall's Rakeem Cato, who has thrown for 3,042 yards and 32 touchdowns. Cato also has been picked off seven times.
"Carden gets the ball out of his hands extremely quick," Holliday said. "They do a great job with him - he can beat you with his feet if nothing opens up downfield. He can break containment, break out of the pocket and people are missing sacks on him.
"He's a little bit like Cato. When plays break down into a scramble situation is when Carden is at his best. Both of these quarterbacks are the heart and soul for the offense."
Cato is climbing the charts in terms of career numbers with the Thundering Herd. He trails Byron Leftwich (1998-2002) for second place in total passing touchdowns, 89 to 84.
Cato should surpass Michael Payton (1989-92) for third place in total passing yards. Cato stands at 9,302, while Payton finished his career with 9,411.
"It doesn't take Cato a whole lot to get excited about competing - that's just him," Holliday said. "He's become a more complete and better quarterback. Bill Legg deserves so much credit for that. He has done a tremendous job with him on and off the field.
"On Friday, it's going to be a fun day. It's going to be two great quarterbacks going at each other."
While East Carolina won its last C-USA title in 2009, Marshall is seeking its first C-USA title game appearance in nine seasons in the conference.
In addition to Cato, Marshall's offensive weapons include receiver Tommy Shuler (80-872, 9 TDs) and tight end Gator Hoskins (34-592, 12 TDs), along with running backs Essray Taliaferro (159-845, 9 TDs), Stewart Butler (66-661, 7TDs) and Kevin Grooms (91-503, 6 TDs).
"I've known Doc (Holliday) a long time," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We're defensive guys. I think our teams reflect what we've been around defensively and what we've faced offensively. His team is one that, after last season, made some nice changes and they've really done a good job all year and been a consistent team."
Supplying the production offensively for the Pirates are running back Vntvus Cooper (185-902, 9 TDs), along with receiver Justin Hardy (95-1,130, 8 TDs). Defensively, they have allowed 18.6 points per game during their past five games. Overall, East Carolina rank 21st in total defense.
"Defensive coordinator Rick Smith has done a tremendous job with them," Holliday said. "I'm sure coach McNeill has his fingerprints on it too because he is a defensive coach."