ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill has spent the last decade at Texas Tech, but the former Pirate defensive back (‘80) understands the importance of the rivalry between these two programs that are separated by roughly 100 miles.
"The rivalry is there," McNeill said earlier this week. "I know our fans love the competition. We loved it when I played. It was great. It'll be intense. This is a grown man's part of the season. I'm looking forward to the challenge."
The matchups between these two N.C. schools is just as heated on the playing field as it is in the stands, due to a large number of local players saturating both rosters. North Carolina wide receiver Erik Highsmith, hailing from Vanceboro, N.C., is friends with six Pirates. And despite being raised on the opposite side of the state, running back Johnny White is good friends with ECU defensive back Rahkeem Morgan. Both players attended Asheville (N.C.) High School.
"It's fun to talk a little trash," White said. "They talk a lot of trash down there. It just adds a little more fun to the game and a little more excitement."
East Carolina offensive coordinator and 27-year-old wunderkind Lincoln Riley has made quick work of the installation of Mike Leach's Air Red in Greenville, N.C. The Pirates' pass-happy spread offense ranks 27th nationally in total offense (441.3 ypg), 13th in passing offense (299.3 ypg) and ninth in scoring offense (42.3 ppg). ECU has scored 16 touchdowns through three games, twice as many as North Carolina.
Boston College transfer Dominique Davis (85-of-129 passing, 890 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) has excelled in his first year as the Pirates' starting quarterback, thanks in large part to senior wide receiver Dwayne Harris (23 catches, 294 yards, 4 TD).
"It's a highly explosive offense," UNC head coach Butch Davis said. "… They're generating 42 points a game – they're hanging points on a lot of people. They move the ball with a lot of efficiency."
North Carolina balanced the denied NCAA appeals of free safety Deunta Williams and cornerback Kendric Burney on Friday with the return of strong safety Da'Norris Searcy, who was cleared by the university on Wednesday from the academic prong of the NCAA investigation. Searcy represents a significant talent infusion for a secondary that will have its hands full on Saturday.
While East Carolina's offensive statistics look like something out of a video game, T.J. Yates and Co. have posted some impressive numbers through the air as well, averaging 275.0 passing yards per game (24th). Yates has feasted on East Carolina's pass defense in his two previous career opportunities against the Pirates – completing 39-of-56 passing for 571 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.
"Offensively, it starts with T.J. Yates," McNeill said. "I think I've heard some criticism of him, but it's unfair. He is a really fine quarterback. He has great pocket presence, understands the offense, commands the offense and does a great job distributing the football."
And when you consider East Carolina's pass defense ranks 119th nationally (303.3 ypg), it's hard to imagine that absurdity of riches not continuing for a third time.
"I think we'll have the same opportunities that we had last year," said Highsmith, who caught six passes for 113 yards and a touchdown in '09 against the Pirates. "I don't think they're as skilled as they were last year in the secondary, so I think we've got a bigger chance to run the ball and pass the ball. We should be more balanced this Saturday."
A balanced attack would be a welcome change of pass for North Carolina, as the ground game is only churning out 86.0 yards per game (109th). That statistic helps explain why coordinator John Shoop's offense ranks in the bottom half of the country in total offense (361.0 ypg, 73rd) and scoring offense (21.7 ppg, 88th).
One critical factor to watch is how both teams perform in the first quarter. North Carolina has been outscored 31-10 in the opening stanza this season, while East Carolina has blitzed its opponents for a 48-17 advantage through 15 minutes. It doesn't help the Tar Heels that the Pirates are their second consecutive opponent to enjoy a bye week before kickoff.