Marshall football: Herd needs to 'go hard or go home'
GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato's message to the rest of the Thundering Herd was succinct.
"Go hard or go home," he said.
He said it as a challenge. It could be taken as a simple statement of fact.
If the Herd falls today at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium against East Carolina (2 p.m., CBS Sports Network), its season is over. It finishes below .500 for the sixth time in eight years - and second time in three years under Coach Doc Holliday - and joins the 49 other Football Bowl Subdivision teams forced to watch the postseason from their couches.
"We either go hard and win this game," Cato said, "or we go out and lay down and it'll be our worst nightmare."
It helps that the Herd (5-6, 4-3 Conference USA) are in the nearly identical situation they were just last season - same opponent, same record, same stakes. So there should be no surprises or worries about the unknown, defensive end Jeremiah Taylor said.
"There's a sense of urgency now," Taylor said. "The positive thing I still see is that guys aren't panicking. We've just got to do what we do, stay in the moment and everything will fall into place."
The Pirates (7-4, 6-1) remember their 2011 season finale, too, and there are no fond memories. ECU took the Herd to overtime at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, but ultimately fell 34-27 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2005. ECU Coach Ruffin McNeill said this week that he's not making revenge his team's top motivating factor. It still can sneak into the Conference USA title game against Tulsa with a win and a University of Central Florida loss.
But the Herd refuses to believe the Pirates won't walk into this game itching for some sense of payback.
"I know they're looking forward to getting that chance to ruin it for us," defensive end Alex Bazzie said.
Both teams are different from last season. ECU's offense has gone from a pass-heavy scheme that featured former quarterback Dominique Davis to a more balanced attack that puts more of a spotlight on junior-college transfer running back Vintavious Cooper. Cooper is on the cusp of a 1,000-yard rushing season, sitting at 978 yards for the year.
The Herd has shown flashes of improvement on defense in 2012. The unit helped Marshall get out to a three-touchdown lead against Houston last week by forcing the Cougars into four three-and-out situations in their first five drives. But Marshall's defense still hasn't learned to keep it up for four quarters. That three touchdown lead turned into a tie game with 78 seconds remaining before Justin Haig hit a career-long 45-yard field goal to beat Houston 44-41.
The difference in Marshall is that it now has an offense, one of the most potent in the country. The Herd struggled to move the ball last season, but that's not the case in 2012. ECU must contend with an offense averaging a conference-best 525.3 yards and 39.3 points per game. Cato has led the way. He's No. 1 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in completions (34.09) and passing yards (353) per game and has thrown 32 touchdowns.
Today's game means everything when it comes to how the 2012 Thundering Herd will be remembered. A win puts Marshall in consecutive bowl games for the first time since back-to-back GMAC Bowls in 2001 and 2002. The Herd can take that momentum into the offseason and use it as a selling point on the recruiting trail.
A loss leaves the Herd wondering what happened in a season that started out with promise, why the team couldn't build upon the progress made last year and how a team with one of the most prolific offenses in America, one that averages more points than 105 other FBS teams, can miss the postseason.
The Herd has four quarters to define its season, Bazzie said, so the players must remember how high the stakes are.
"It's not going to be just some simple, basic game," Bazzie said. "It's not going to be a game where we think we can just go in and take it or it's just the last game, so it's whatever. This is something huge."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.