The Tar Heels own a commanding lead in the head-to-head series (12-2-1) and have won each of the last four games against the Pirates by an average of about 19 points (18.8). To make matters seem worse, ECU hasn't won in Chapel Hill since 1975 and is 1-11 in their last twelve games against ACC opponents.
But that's all history. Currently, both teams are desperate to get their seasons back on track following losses.
For ECU, it was a gut-wrenching, 15-10, loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies on Sep. 14. A loss that stung more than others, due in large part to missed opportunities by the Pirates, and made the team's additional time during last week's open date more valuable to collectively put Virginia Tech in the rear view mirror, refocus and move forward.
"The last game we played, that was a tough locker room to address and I've addressed a lot of locker rooms," said ECU Head Coach Ruffin McNeill. "These kids have invested a lot and I want to win for them first."
ECU had another loss earlier this week when starting nose tackle Terry Williams was suspended indefinitely by McNeill for violating team rules. The suspension was announced just a week after Williams was called one of the best defensive players the Hokies will face by their running backs coach Shane Beamer – which includes lineman from No. 1 Alabama.
Junior Chrishon Rose will be asked to make his first collegiate start in the place of Williams. Meanwhile, freshmen Demetri McGill, who has yet to appear in a game this season, and Frederick Presely are both expected to see playing time as well along the defensive line Saturday.
Speaking of freshmen, cornerback DaShawn Benton was a player that coaches liked in fall camp, but were hoping to redshirt this season. With the uncertainty of Josh Hawkins' status, McNeill said in his weekly press conference that Benton's redshirt will play against the Tar Heels. Thus, removing his redshirt.
Hawkins was listed as questionable on Monday because of pending concussion tests he had to complete. After practicing in a no-contact red jersey Tuesday, Hawkins was given more reps on Wednesday and according to McNeill, did well on his final concussion test earlier that morning. Barring any setbacks from now until Saturday's 12:30 p.m. kick-off time, he should be able to play.
Inside linebacker Kyle Tudor is expected to start at inside linebacker after missing a game with a right shoulder injury.
From the Tar Heels' perspective, they currently sit with an under-.500 record under second-year head coach Larry Fedora, who is used to facing ECU on an annual basis dating back to his five-year tenure at Southern Mississippi prior to coming to Chapel Hill.
Last weekend, UNC led Georgia Tech 20-7 in the second quarter before letting the game wash away in the wet conditions at Bobby Dodd Stadium. The Yellow Jackets scored 21 unanswered points to come from behind and win, 28-20.
Although, the Tar Heels offense was held scoreless in the second half, its stars showcased enough of their talent in the first half to raise concern for the Pirates.
Quarterback Bryn Renner had a pair of touchdown passes to tie T.J. Yates for the most in school history (58) and tight end Eric Ebron hauled in a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch in the first quarter.
"Eric Ebron is a special football player. He'll be a first-round draft choice and we'll have to be very aware of where he is," said McNeill. "In Larry (Fedora's) offense, he shows where he can play in space and on air, and they do a good job of getting him the football."
Out at wide receiver, the Tar Heels return two of Renner's go-to targets. Sean Tapley, who scored a 62-yard touchdown in last season's 27-6 win against ECU, had a touchdown against the Yellow Jackets and will also be a threat in the return game. Sophomore Quinshad Davis should receive numerous targets as well.
The difference in last season's game in Chapel Hill was the frequent pressure the Tar Heels put on ECU quarterback Shane Carden. In fact, they compiled seven sacks altogether – which included a sack-fumble by New Bern native Kevin Reddick that set up a score to put the game out of reach. With ECU's offense returning the bulk of its starters, the focus hasn't changed for UNC.
"We're going to have to play really well on defense," said UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora earlier this week. "Obviously, it starts with getting pressure on the quarterback. We're going to have to get some pressure on the quarterback."
Saturday's game will be broadcast on the ACC Network. It's ECU's first appearance on the network since a, 35-20, loss to Virginia in 2008.
Prediction: North Carolina- 34, East Carolina- 20