Countdown to kickoff: Tulane

ECU looks to close its season-long three-game road trip, 3-0, when it visits the Tulane Green Wave Saturday.

The East Carolina football team will play inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the third time in less than a year when it faces the Tulane Green Wave (4-2, 2-0 C-USA) Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

The Pirates (4-1, 2-0 C-USA) have won the last five meetings in the head-to-head series – including a pair of narrow wins in New Orleans – and are looking to close its season-long three-game road trip with an unscathed 3-0 record.

It will be the schools' final meeting as members of Conference USA, before they each join the American Athletic Conference next July.

Last weekend in Murfreesboro, Tenn., ECU avoided a letdown with a, 24-17, win at Middle Tennessee State, but was required to score a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter to outlast the Blue Raiders.

Similar to the ECU, Tulane was entrenched in a nail-biter as well while hosting North Texas. Despite leading the Mean Green by two touchdowns heading into the fourth quarter, the Green Wave needed a last-second Cairo Santos field goal in order to survive, 24-21, in the Superdome.

In its second season under head coach Curtis Johnson, Tulane has already doubled its win-total from 2012 (2-10) and returns a pair of explosive weapons on offense.

In recent years, senior wide receiver Ryan Grant has proven to be one of the premiere deep threats in C-USA – he led the conference in receiving yards per game in 2012 (95.8 YPG). Thus far this season, Grant has already amassed 40 receptions and four touchdowns.

Fellow senior Orleans Darkwa is also back in the Green Wave backfield and is currently tied for a league-best six touchdowns on the ground. At quarterback, Nick Montana – yes, the son of Joe Montana – leads the Tulane offense and in lieu of being a first-year starter, has been effective. Through six games, Montana has tossed 10 touchdown passes to just four interceptions.

"Offensively, Orleans Darkwa is a really good football player and is always one of the best [running] backs in the league," said Head Coach Ruffin McNeill. "They have a really good name everyone knows under center in Nick Montana. He looks like [his father] Joe a little bit. You say he can't run, and he runs. You say he can't make every throw and he makes every throw. He does a good job leading them."

On the defensive side of the ball, Tulane leads the conference in interceptions with 11, thanks in part mostly to reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Week Lorenzo Doss. The sophomore cornerback has four picks on the season, notching a pair of them against North Texas.

A large question mark surrounding the ECU offense is the lingering status of running back Vintavious Cooper. In the first half of last Saturday's game, Cooper was on the receiving end of a hellacious helmet-to-helmet blow that knocked him out of the game with concussion-like symptoms.

On Monday, Cooper was listed as questionable and received limited work –without contact – at practice this week. If he's unable to go, it will be sophomore Chris Hairston getting his first collegiate start after his 18-carry, 96-yard performance against Middle Tennessee State.

"I thought he did a good job of waiting for his opportunity and seizing the moment," said McNeill. "He ran with relentlessness, which we need, and he also protected well. He caught the ball well and made some really vital first downs."

Arguably, the largest challenge of playing Tulane in the Superdome will be overcoming the odd atmosphere (or lack thereof) it provides. Without the extra energy boost from the crowd that the players have grown accustomed to while playing major Division I football, the Pirates know they have to bring their own motivation to the game.

"We experienced that a little bit last week playing Middle Tennessee," said strong safety Damon Magazu, who had the game-clinching interception against the Blue Raiders. "When we're playing [in Greenville], we love it. But when we go on away games, it's hard to match the intensity of playing in Dowdy-Ficklen [Stadium].

"But sometimes you got to get yourself ready and get yourself hyped up for the game and pretend 50,000 fans are screaming when you run out of the tunnel."

The last time ECU played in the Superdome, it lost to Lousiana-Lafayette, 43-34, in last December's R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. ECU-Tulane will be broadcast locally on WITN and on the Pirate IMG Sports Network Saturday.

Prediction: East Carolina: 31, Tulane: 23

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