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Finally, Marshall again has a 'Game of the Year'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- HERE IS a crazy thought: Is Marshall's upcoming game against East Carolina the most important game in the program's history?

I know you think I'm out of my mind, but it's just a thought. For the record, I can think of a few other games with some pretty high stakes.

Xavier 1971 tops all. The first home game after the plane crash was going to raise the spirits of the still-mourning community, regardless of the outcome.

East Tennessee State 1984? Maybe, but when that game kicked off in Johnson City, there was still disbelief that the Thundering Herd program could break its two-decade streak of losing seasons.

I-AA national championships? Yes, for 1987, 1991 and 1992. Particularly for the springboard season of '87 - if you can fly the band to Pocatello, Idaho, you know there's a little hype.

Mid-American Conference championship games? Older MU fans were licking their chops before the 1997 game against Toledo.

Games vs. West Virginia? 1997 and 2010. The Herd's grand entrance to Division I-A came with summer-long buildup; the 2010 game was in Huntington and MU fans knew their team had a decent shot.

Bowl games? 1997 and 1999 Motor City Bowls. The former was MU's first modern bowl game, against an SEC foe to boot. The latter came against a Brigham Young team ranked in one poll, and the domination validated the Herd's best-ever season?

Others? 2002 Virginia Tech put Byron Leftwich and a preseason-ranked Herd team on a big Thursday night stage. As it turned out, Leftwich put up big numbers but the Herd still fell behind 33-0.

That brings us to Friday, as the Herd welcomes the Pirates for a winner-take-all fight for the Conference USA East Division title. Kickoff is at noon.

Marshall fans, you wanted this game. You wanted your team to join C-USA, and you wanted your team to contend for the league championship. Your team has won six C-USA games and eight overall this season.

After muddling through eight seasons, you get the big shot at home, against a legitimately tough gang of Pirates.

Shane Carden, who has thrown for 3,575 yards and 32 touchdowns, will be the league's MVP. Justin Hardy has caught 95 balls for 1,130 yards. Much like Marshall, ECU changed defensive coordinators and that unit is substantially better.

Not every Herd fan will get this. The bandwagon loads up after the team enjoys success, not while it's on the rise.

At the stadium, a few factors will work against a good gate, so you can stop your griping in advance. The students are home on break, the weather might be frightening and the game is on Black Friday.

(Ladies are excused for skipping the game to hunt bargains; gentlemen are not. Entering a mall on Black Friday is a major man-card violation.)

Besides, I've seen a few empty stadiums in my C-USA travels this fall. MU's four road venues - Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee, Tulsa and Florida International - reported a combined "paid" attendance of 72,272, which is a quadruple farce.

Let's put it this way: The Herd's rumps-in-seats crowd Friday will top all four actual crowds combined. An unfortunate reality of the new Conference USA, I'm afraid.

So is East Carolina's departure. As I have said several times, that program deserved its ticket to the would-have-been Big East first, ahead of Memphis, Central Florida, Houston, Tulsa and those wannabes at Southern Methodist and Tulane.

I'll miss Greenville, I'll miss the people, I'll miss the atmosphere at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Most of all, I'll miss the football, as there have been some epic battles.

Four have gone to overtime, counting the Herd's pre-C-USA 64-61 win at Mobile in 2001. Last year's game nearly scored as many points, finishing 65-59 in the Pirates' favor. Both went two overtimes.

The 2012 game at Joan C. Edwards Stadium pitted two 5-6 teams, but it was as good as you'll see. Remember the 57- and 58-yard field goals by ECU's Mike Barbour and the filthy catch by Aaron Dobson? The game was littered with highlight-reel plays.

There's plenty more. ECU ruined MU's bowl hopes in 2005 and survived the 2006 game where Albert McClellan became a force at defensive end. The decimated 2007 Herd defense somehow limited the Pirates to seven points, smashing their East Division hopes.

ECU won the 2008 game in OT, then stole the 2009 game with the help of Dwayne Harris' critical catch, made while rolling over on his back.

Friday is the final chapter for the foreseeable future. Marshall is trying to advance to its first C-USA championship game, while ECU is shooting for its third such game and third league title.

After flicking away FIU 48-10 Saturday night, Herd players weren't even interested in celebrating. Shoot, they're loving the six-day preparation week, they're so ready to play.

"This game today, we were like, 'Dude, this feels like forever waiting to play this game,'" said center Chris Jasperse. "Now we've got to turn that around [quickly], and it won't be a problem. It's good to get on the field quicker than later."

It is when football is fun, which it has been for Herd players and those who follow them. It should be, for this Marshall team is playing its first "Game of the Year" in a long time.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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