Season-opener vs Towson looms large

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Despite facing an FCS opponent, this week's season-opening game against Towson could answer questions about the team.

East Carolina will run through the purple haze at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday to take on the Towson Tigers of the FCS and kick off the upcoming season.

The game will mark the sixth opener in the Ruffin McNeill era but the lure of the moment has yet to change.

“I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair store,” McNeill said Monday, surely with the vision of running out of the tunnel on his mind. “At the same time, it’s an exciting time. This venue is fantastic. I’m ready to see how our team reacts. I hold my breath before every play. You want to see the kids execute well, play smart, help each other do well, win by one and get out of there.”

History indicates that there’s hardly any reason for McNeill to be nervous. After all, his teams haven’t lost in an opener since 2011 against South Carolina and the program is riding a 23-game winning streak against FCS opponents, including three-straight wins in the McNeill era.

Assumptions are hardly a safe bet, even for an established program like ECU. Want proof, look back Michigan and Appalachian State when the Mountaineers knocked off one of football’s premier programs and pulled off arguably the greatest upset in college football in 2007. Things of that nature can be detrimental to a team and the Pirates know that.

“You can’t look past nobody. Like you’ve seen in a couple of games in history, when App beat Michigan, it goes to show that you can’t look past anybody,” said the well-endowed senior Zeek Bigger. “You have to go out there and give it all you got no matter who the opposing team is. We’re trying to go undefeated so each and every game you have to take it seriously.”

The Pirates had no trouble taking things seriously against FCS member North Carolina Central and thoroughly thumped the in-state opponent 52-7 to kick off their eventual 8-5 campaign last season.

Things are different this season, though and everyone knows it. What was formerly a tune-up for the deep, experienced Pirate team last season has turned into a showcase of sorts to find out just who will lead this version of the team into ‘The Swamp’ to take on the Florida Gators of the vaunted Southeastern Conference.

Blake Kemp’s jersey doubles Shane Carden’s No. 5 but his reputation can hardly be compared. The former JUCO transfer has the unenviable task of replacing both Carden and the successor Kurt Benkert as the program is at an all-time high.

Amidst all of these story lines and undertones stands Towson, the oft-forgotten FCS opponent. Forgotten, that is, unless you lose.

The Tigers stand as no slouch. They did play in the 2013 FCS championship, losing to North Dakota State and defeating Connecticut along the way, but have since wallowed in post-season hangover. Last season produced a disappointing 4-8 record and the Tigers probably realistically stand in the middle of their 13-3 near-championship campaign and last season.

“I know (Towson head) coach Ambrose and I understand that program and what they do there,” McNeill said. “They’re a very well-coached team when you watch them on film. I’ve been asked about them already. They’re very talented with a lot of starters coming back.”

The strength in this season’s Tigers squad lies on offense where speedy quarterback Connor Frazier is supported by the hard-running Darius Victor, providing a suitable one-two punch on the ground.

Together, the duo combined for 2,037 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns, 12 of which were contributed from 5-foot-8, 210-pound Victor.

“They’ve got a power back there,” defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “He’s a really good player. (Victor) doesn’t try to make you miss, he puts his shoulder down and run over you if he can. We need to tackle him in the backfield, we don’t need safeties trying to bring him down.”

Smith alluded to it and it fits his philosophy to a ‘T’. Stop the run and everything else will fall into place. It’s been the defensive strength since his arrival and likely will remain just that with the talented front-seven the Pirates boast.

Offensively things look murky still for the Pirates. Kemp is in at quarterback and the pass-oriented attack will likely rely on his ability to hit playmakers in space. The magnitude of the moment may add a considerable amount of nerves to the unproven quarterback, but he isn’t alone.

Opening games are the final first-go for seniors and the initial contest for newcomers. McNeill isn’t worried about it affecting his team in a negative way, though.

“I’m not ready to hold them back from that,” McNeill said. “Hopefully they can settle down. The speed of the game will change. Even though we practice at a fast tempo, the game is even faster. I’ll remind them and start talking to them tomorrow to take an extra step on your route, coverage or block. Hopefully that helps with the speed of the game.”

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