Nov. 25, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - It's an emotional convergence - on this Black Friday -- of a battle for the Conference USA East Division championship and 2013 Senior Day for Marshall.
However, the final season of his collegiate football career already is special for veteran Thundering Herd cornerback Monterius Lovett.
"I've never been on a team that's won more than seven games before," Lovett said Monday during MU player interviews for the run-up to a Thanksgiving Friday noon kickoff at Joan C. Edwards Stadium between Marshall (8-3, 6-1) and East Carolina (9-2, 6-1). "This is the first time."
The guy nicknamed "Pac-Man" is gobbling up everything he can about this week, a situation he hopes will continue in a quest for a division crown against one of the nation's top quarterbacks, ECU junior Shane Carden. His 72.8 completion percentage leads the nation.
"This is our biggest game, no doubt," said Lovett, who has two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and seven pass breakups this season. "This is the biggest game I've ever played. It's special. It would be special because it's Senior Day, but there's more to it.
"They've got a great offense (461.6 total yards per game), the best offense we've seen all year. It's a great group of receivers, a very good running back (Vintavious Cooper), and the quarterback (Carden) has made a lot of progress since last year. He seems much better this year."
In the Pirates' 65-59 double overtime win in Greenville, N.C., last Thanksgiving Friday, the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Carden was responsible for six ECU touchdowns - three through the air and three short rushes. He was 38-of-47 for 439 yards, with no interceptions.
This season, his TD-to-picks number matches that of Marshall's Rakeem Cato, Carden's junior foe in the East title game - 32 scores, 7 interceptions.
East Carolina ranks 10th nationally (FBS) in passing offense at 335.2 yards per game, 11 spots in front of the Herd (295.3), which has a much more balanced attack in running for 89 yards per game more than the Pirates.
"It looks like he's staying in the pocket more," Lovett said when asked if Carden/2013 is different from last year's version. "He's accurate, but he can run the ball, too. He makes things happen back there.
"If you give him time to get rid of the ball, he'll make stuff happen," Lovett said. "He gets outside the pocket, so we have to do a great job containing. If you can contain, you can make something happen."
The only quarterback to throw for more yardage against the Herd in coach Doc Holliday's four seasons was Houston's Case Keenum, who had 479 in a Cougars' 63-28 victory in 2011.
"I feel like there were times we were trying to do too much and we got out of position," Lovett said when asked to think back to last season's ECU-Marshall game and what has to change in the Herd's retooled - and much improved - defense in 2013. "We had some blown coverage, and in this game, we can't have that at all.
"We have to stay focused. Everybody has to do a good job at their job Ã¢â'¬Â¦ we've got to focus. We've got to communicate better, and I feel that's really a key. That, and playing hard and strive and strain to the ball every play."
The last two regular seasons have ended with a Thanksgiving weekend meeting of these teams. The 2011 Marshall-ECU game at "The Joan" determined both team's bowl eligibility in overtime, and Marshall won 34-27. Last year, the Herd's bowl status hung in the balance for what became a double OT loss.
This one will be the last C-USA meeting of the teams, since the Pirates are heading for the AAC after this school year.
"I know it's going to be a great game," Lovett said.
The senior cornerback is one of four redshirt seniors remaining for the final Herd class (2009) signed by former coach Mark Snyder, along with guard Alex Schooler and defensive linemen James Rouse and Matt Pickett. Tackle Jordan Jeffries is still with the team, but had his final season and career cut short by a hip injury.
Lovett came to Marshall from Tallahassee, Fla., and has prospered. And he's finishing with what Holliday calls Lovett's "best year. That's what you like to see from seniors. That's what you need. Pac's been a good leader for us."
Lovett's 70-yard interception return to score in MU's 55-0 rout of Gardner-Webb in September was his first career touchdown. He said he'd never reached the end zone at Rickards High in Tallahassee.
"It was OK," Lovett said of his high school's success in football. "To be honest, I've never won more than seven games in a season in my life, until now. I've never won a championship, so this right here is a big accomplishment."
He's also been named a game captain again this week - the fifth time chosen by Herd coaches in 12 games for the 5-foot-11, 171-pound Lovett. Only Cato (7), center Chris Jasperse (7) and Rouse (6) have been so recognized for their leadership and play more often.
Asked about the coming weekend, with a national holiday, Senior Day, and a potential first C-USA division title melding as one, Lovett thought about it and his voice began to break when he spoke.
"I mean, I don't know if you or I can really explain how I feel," Lovett said. "I'll probably be on the field crying for sure. Like I said, it's really exciting right now, and I know it's going to be a great game.
"And I know there's going to be a whole lot of adversity we have to fight through. We've just got to know how to handle adversity. We've learned how to win here. We have to remember that.
"We've talked about it, the seniors. We can't believe it's the last game (at home), maybe, can't believe it's Senior Day, can't believe it's here. It's just hard to believe.
"Yes, this will be the best moment of my career. I've never played in something like this. I've never gotten this close to a championship, of going to a championship."
Lovett will make his 34th career start for Marshall on Friday. He knows it likely won't be his last, because win or lose to the Pirates, the Herd will be going to a bowl game.
However, Lovett doesn't want it to be his last Edwards Stadium start, because the Herd, with a victory, would have a shot at playing host to the Dec. 7 Conference USA title game.
"It's what I've been telling our guys all week and last week," Lovett said. "I'm excited. This is something I can't wait for. I love games like this, I really do.
"It's going to be a really competitive game and I'm excited about it. It's something I've been waiting for forever, playing for a championship, and it's going to be a great feeling.
"We've just got to do a great job of doing our job."