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Marshall football: Cooper a game-changer for ECU

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The East Carolina University football team isn't the pass-happy group it's been in the past, but with a running back like Vintavious Cooper, the Pirates can afford to focus more on the ground game.

The 5-foot-9, 189-pound transfer from Southwest Mississippi Community College enters Friday's 2 p.m. home game against Marshall (CBS Sports Network) with 978 yards and five touchdowns on the season. With Cooper in the backfield, the Pirates (7-4, 6-1 Conference USA) have run the ball 391 times and passed 397. That's quite a difference from 2011, when ECU ran 397 times and passed 524 times.

That balance has allowed the Pirates to become one of the conference's most effective red zone teams. ECU has scored on 38 of 42 red zone trips, with 28 touchdowns and 10 field goals. ECU Coach Ruffin McNeill said that success is a full team effort.

"Our offensive line has been playing well and working as a cohesive unit," McNeill said. "The ability to run the football with both our quarterback and our running backs has really allowed us to have and sustain success in the red zone. Hopefully we can continue all of that going forward."

Marshall defensive coordinator Chris Rippon said the Pirates have dedicated themselves to becoming a more balanced offense. The four-receiver spread formation is still there, but East Carolina also has run plays where Cooper has a blocker with him in the backfield.  

"When a running back comes in and thinks, 'OK, I'm the one back and I'm running zone read,' and all of the sudden, they put him in a position where he has a lead blocker, he's really happy. You don't get the direct shots you get in a one-back set all the time, and he's proven to have taken advantage of that."

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THE PIRATES are comfortably part of the college football postseason, but that wasn't the case last year, the first time since 2005 that ECU didn't play in a bowl. It was the Pirates' overtime loss to Marshall (5-6, 4-3 C-USA) in their season finale that sealed it.

East Carolina would dash the Thundering Herd's bowl hopes by beating Marshall on Friday. But McNeill said that, even with the way last season ended, revenge isn't the Pirates' minds.

"We just need to play well this week," he said. "That is all the motivation that we will need. Sure our team knows how the game ended last year, but I don't plan on using last year's outcome as incentive or motivation this week. Our motivation is to just make sure that we are getting better each week and that is what we have told the team all season long."

The Pirates actually can sneak into the Conference USA title game against Tulsa if UCF loses this week. But the Knights end their season against 3-8 UAB.

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THE HERD has played in some pretty docile opposing stadiums this season. The intimate gatherings sitting in the stands at Rice and UAB come to mind. Marshall shouldn't have that problem at ECU.

The Pirates normally play before a large, raucous crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. ECU's fans fill the stadium to an average capacity of 94.3 percent, the 35th-best percentage in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Marshall Coach Doc Holliday said a packed stadium combined with talented opposition make for a tough environment to enter.

"Teams with good players, at their house with it packed, is a tough situation to go into," he said. "They've won a bunch of games down there and have had a bunch of great players. Those things sure contribute to make it a tough place to play."

Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.

 


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