Countdown to kickoff: Old Dominion

GREENVILLE, N.C. – ECU is determined to kick-start its season with a resounding win against the Old Dominion Monarchs.

The Pirates and Monarchs enter Saturday night's game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on two completely different sides of the spectrum.

For East Carolina, it will be the first game of its farewell tour from Conference USA, while for Old Dominion, Saturday will mark its first ever game against a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponent. If that wasn't challenging enough, ODU will visit a stadium that is more than twice the size of any venue they've ever played in.

Despite not being tested yet, the school's relatively new football program has made large strides since its birth in 2009 – the Monarchs finished with an 11-2 record last season while competing in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) – which prompted the school's athletics department to jump into the proverbial deep-end of the pool by scheduling stiffer competition.

In addition to facing the Pirates, ODU will travel to three schools from the Atlantic Coast Conference; Maryland, Pittsburgh and North Carolina. But for this season, the Monarchs must remain classified as an independent member of the FCS, before joining C-USA next summer.

As for the team that will actually be taking the field, ODU returns 15 starters from a season ago, including its multi-purpose signal-caller Taylor Heinicke, who threw for 5,076 yards and 44 touchdowns, in addition to his 11 rushing scores. As these numbers should indicate, Heinicke has understandably attracted the bulk of attention from ECU during its preparation.

"Taylor is one of the finest quarterbacks out there and it's not by accident when you look at his numbers," said head coach Ruffin McNeill. "His stats speak to one part of him, but meeting him in person, you see why he's a leader and can see why that team revolves around him."

Not only will McNeill be looking to start his fourth campaign on the right foot, but also, improve his lackluster 3-11 non-conference record – which includes bowl losses to Maryland and Louisiana-Lafayette.

One of his three out-of-conference wins came against in-state foe, Appalachian State, in last season's home opener. Similar to ODU, Appalachian had experienced success in the FCS, and thanks to a slow start by the Pirates, the Mountaineers hung around and went into halftime only trailing by a point, 14-13.

ECU woke up in the second half and proved to be the superior team by shutting out the opposition and coasting to a 35-13 victory. Given the similarities, the Pirates will not be overlooking the Monarchs.

"We know we'll have to play our best. We know they're going to be ready to go," said McNeill when asked about how he will approach this year's game differently. "We have to make sure we start fast, sustain, and focus and finish."

Injury-wise, both teams enter Saturday night relatively healthy, without any key players expected to miss significant time. ECU defensive end Justin Dixon and running back Breon Allen were limited during practice this week, but are each listed as probable and expected to play.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., which may be a direct response to the heat wave in last year's opener. A game that started just past Noon. Aside from the cooler temperatures, a night kickoff calls for an alteration in each of the player's game-day routines.

"I'm really big on that routine, especially those last 48 hours," said McNeill. "I don't like breaking routine … It may vary because of time of the game, but the routine is always the same for us."

Prediction: East Carolina: 38, Old Dominion: 17

Playing against its toughest competition ever in a venue that is difficult for any visiting team, it would be unrealistic to expect the Monarchs to take out the Pirates in their first FBS game. Plus, I foresee ECU learning its lesson from last year's opener against Appalachian State and controlling this one all the way through.


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