Despite winning back-to-back Conference USA championships, the 2010 season was tabbed by most pundits as a rebuilding year in Greenville, N.C., and for good reason – Skip Holtz finally jumped at a BCS job offer (South Florida) after East Carolina lost 30 lettermen, the most in the FBS, following the '09 campaign. Enter Ruffin McNeill, a former Pirate defensive back ('80), that had spent the previous decade at Texas Tech, the last two as Mike Leach's defensive coordinator. The Lumberton, N.C. native's staff consists of a blend of Texas Tech (8) and East Carolina (7) personnel, allowing McNeill to maintain the roots of the previous regime while bringing in the familiarity of his decade spent in Lubbock, Tex.
Thus far, Ruffin has enthralled his fan base and surprised everyone else with an offensive approach that has produced 16 touchdowns through three games and a 2-1 record. The Pirates opened the season with a 51-49 thriller over C-USA rival Tulsa in a game that delivered 11 straight touchdown possessions before a final Hail Mary to secure the victory. ECU followed that performance up with a 49-27 thrashing of Memphis, and then led 17-7 and 27-21 over Virginia Tech on Sept. 18 before the Hokies scored 28 unanswered points over the final 20 minutes to claim a 49-27 victory.
"We put no emphasis on one game or another. And it's not media talk or interview talk. We don't. Each game we play is important. Tulsa was the biggest game on our schedule that week because it was the only game. So was Memphis. So was Virginia Tech… The rivalry part, we can't get caught up into because now it'll take away from focusing on the little things that you've got to focus on." – McNeill on the rivalry with North Carolina
"The ACC has it all: Speed, strength, talent. They have it all. It's going to be a dogfight going in there Saturday. We're just going to go out there and do what we need to do to win the game." – ECU quarterback Dominique Davis
Matchups to Watch
East Carolina's Spread Offense vs. North Carolina's Secondary
ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley may have just turned 27 years old, but the wonder boy has invigorated the Pirate fan base with a high-scoring spread offense that ranks 27th nationally in total offense (441.3 ypg), 13th in passing offense (299.3 ypg) and ninth in scoring offense (42.3 ppg). The former Mike Leach protégé followed McNeill to Greenville from Lubbock, Tex. and given the East Carolina program hope after Skip Holtz after 14 starters left town.
ACC fans may recognize the name of East Carolina starting quarterback Dominique Davis, who started as a freshman at Boston College before transferring in '09. Davis (85-of-129 passing, 890 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) has excelled in this pass-happy offense that utilizes wide splits up front and three-step drops to get the ball out quickly and into the hands of playmakers. Riley, who coached Biletnikoff award winner Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech, has another standout wide receiver at his disposal in senior Dwayne Harris (23 catches, 294 yards, 4 TD).
"We haven't gotten all of the pieces put together yet, but as soon as we do it's going to be exciting," Davis said. "It's going to be hard to stop us."
North Carolina counters with a secondary that is currently missing seven defensive backs, forcing Tre Boston and Jabari Price – a pair of true freshmen that the coaching staff had planned to red-shirt – into significant snaps. Defensive coordinator Everett Withers's unit ranks fourth nationally in pass defense (128.0 ypg), but that statistic is severely misleading as Georgia Tech only attempted four passes against UNC and Rutgers leaned heavy on its wildcat formation last weekend.
"We pretty much know that it's going to be a game that's just about us – the secondary," Boston said. "The quarterback uses a three-step drop, so he's getting the ball out easy and quick."
Boston indicated the green Tar Heel secondary is looking forward to the challenge that the Red Raider air assault represents, but sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for.
North Carolina's Ground Game vs. East Carolina's Run Defense
It would be easy to look at UNC quarterback T.J. Yates's career statistics against East Carolina – 39-of-56 passing for 571 yards, 5 TD, INT – and think that the Tar Heels's passing attack will carve up the Pirates' defense in healthy chunks all day long. But in order for Yates to have another career passing day, North Carolina must deliver a balanced attack in the form of a solid ground game.
North Carolina currently ranks 109th nationally and 12th in the ACC in rushing offense (86.0 ypg), allowing opposing defenses to put pressure on the fifth-year senior quarterback (2.33 sacks allowed per game, 78th nationally). Despite the low numbers, senior tailbacks Johnny White and Shaun Draughn have posted solid yards-per-carry averages, combining for a 5.2 mark on 49 carries.
In its 31-17 victory over East Carolina in '09, UNC churned out 148 rushing yards on 37 carries, good for a 4.0-yards-per-carry average.
The opportunity for success on the ground should be present, considering that the Pirates are allowing 176.7 rushing yards (91st nationally, 12th C-USA). Virginia Tech overpowered East Carolina on Sept. 18, totaling 249 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, good for a 6.1-yards-per-carry clip.
"Virginia Tech had a good crew of running backs and North Carolina has two good backs with [Johnny] White and Shaun Draughn, who we all know locally as he went to Tarboro," McNeill said. "White and Draughn are really downhill runners. They have excellent speed, size and vision."