Countdown to Kickoff: North Carolina

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU will face UNC for the sixth consecutive season when the two sides meet at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Saturday.

East Carolina will renew its rivalry with North Carolina Saturday at 3:30 p.m. as the Pirates complete the last of their four non-conference games to begin the season.

The 17th installment of the series will mark just the fourth time the Tar Heels (2-0) visit Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — UNC won 35-20 during its last trip to Greenville in 2011 — and although they own a disproportionate 12-3-1 edge in head-to-head matchups, ECU (2-1) rolled to a dominant 55-31 victory at Kenan Memorial Stadium last year.

Many of the same players are back on both sides. ECU senior quarterback Shane Carden, who accounted for six touchdowns in that game, passed for 427 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s road victory against No. 17 Virginia Tech.

The Houston, TX, native arrived at ECU in 2010 and it did not take long for him to learn the gravity of playing the Tar Heels in around Eastern North Carolina.

“They are always calling us the smaller school or the little brother. I’ve heard it all,” Carden said. “It’s fun when you get a rivalry like this and the little school starts beating up on the bigger school — as they would say — it’s just fun.”

While ECU is fresh off playing in two of college football’s most hostile environments at South Carolina and Virginia Tech, UNC had an open date last weekend and opened its season with unimpressive home wins against Liberty and San Diego State.

Third-year coach Larry Fedora’s team was ranked No. 23 in the preseason polls after it closed the 2013 season by winning six of its final seven games. Junior Marquise Williams split time with Bryn Renner at quarterback in most of those games down the stretch and exclusively took over the starting duties when Renner went down with a season-ending shoulder injury.

Remarkably, Williams led the Tar Heels in rushing in 2013 and clearly adds an extra dimension to UNC’s offense that was non-existant with Renner at the controls.

“They are a little bit different than last year,” ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith said, “but they are either going to run it or throw it, just like everybody. I think this year they are probably a little bit more like our offense.”

First-year co-offensive coordinator Gunter Brewer was brought in to replace Blake Anderson, who left Chapel Hill to fill Arkansas State’s head coaching vacancy, and will be calling plays along with Fedora.

Prior to accepting the head coaching job at his Alma Mater, Ruffin McNeill held mostly defensive coaching positions over the last three decades, while Fedora has worked in more offensive-minded capacities. Over the years, both coaches have had a long history of being pitted against each other.

It started in the late 1990’s when McNeill was UNLV’s defensive coordinator and Fedora Air Force’s wide receivers coach (Fedora won both of their clashes in 1997 and 1998). Seven years later, the two sides met again in the Big 12 and Fedora’s Oklahoma State teams got the best of McNeill’s Texas Tech Red Raiders, winning two out of three meetings. As head coaches of the Pirates and Southern Miss, McNeill and Fedora split two games before alternating wins in the UNC-ECU rivalry over the last two seasons.

“Larry and I talk and I have a lot of respect for Larry,” McNeill said.

The argument that Saturday’s game is more important for Fedora and UNC is a fair one. The Tar Heels have not beaten a Top 25 opponent under Fedora’s tutelage and following their run in with the Pirates will face Clemson, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame consecutively. Also, the Tar Heels should be more motivated to play this time around after the drubbing they suffered a year ago.

Despite playing back-to-back nationally ranked opponents on the road, ECU has stayed mostly healthy going into this week. The one major injury for the Tar Heels is that of offensive guard Landon Turner, who will miss the game with an undisclosed injury. Turner has started every game for UNC since late in the 2012 season and is expected to be replaced by true freshman Jared Cohen.

Special teams is often times overlooked, but the matchup between ECU punter Worth Gregory and UNC returner Ryan Switzer could be a real key Saturday.

Gregory, an Alabama transfer, is averaging 48.4 yards per punt through three games, which ranks him eighth nationally in that category. A year after tying the NCAA record for punt-return touchdowns (5) and being named First-Team All-America as a freshman, Switzer has returned seven punts for 70 yards, highlighted by his 30-yard return against Liberty.

“Ryan Switzer, a receiver and returner, is a guy we have to make sure we do a great job with on our coverage team because he can make a difference in the game pretty quickly,” said McNeill.

ECU will welcome its letterwinners this weekend for its annual Hall of Fame weekend. According to McNeill, former ECU coaching legend Pate Dye will be in town to speak to the team Friday.

After Saturday, the next scheduled meeting between the Pirates and Tar Heels is not until 2018 in Greenville, which will end a streak of six consecutive years that the two sides have played.

Television: ESPN (Clay Matvick, Anthony Becht, Dawn Davenport), Radio: Pirate IMG Sports Network (Jeff Charles, Kevin Monroe, Marty Feurer), Kickoff time: 3:30 p.m.

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