Ruffin McNeill's first squad at East Carolina shot out to a 5-2 record in 2010, but a porous defense (478.8 ypg, 120th nationally) undermined a dynamic aerial attack (437.6 ypg, 25th) as the Pirates dropped five of their final six games. The former ECU safety switched up his defensive scheme during the offseason from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and that move has paid dividends through the first three contests of the season as the Pirates (1-2) currently rank 58th in total defense (361.0 ypg). The offense has yet to explode, however, due to a pair of BCS-level opponents and a multitude of turnovers (minus-.133 ratio, 110th). ECU ranks 97th nationally in total offense and 81st in scoring offense (25.0 ppg).
East Carolina led South Carolina 17-0 in the second quarter before five turnovers allowed the Gamecocks to charge back and claim a 56-37 victory after scoring 28 points in the third quarter. The Pirates also built an early 7-0 lead against Virginia Tech on Sept. 10, but the Hokies held the C-USA member to 112 yards of total offense en route to posting a 17-10 win. ECU notched its first win of the season last Saturday in defeating UAB 28-23 despite coughing up a school-record seven turnovers.
"I know this game this week will be emotional. This week we'll be 50,000-plus again. That's Pirate nation, that's us. I know we'll show great class, great emotion. I know that we care about our team but let's make sure that as the great group that we are that we continue to show our pride and class." – McNeill
"He's not Coach Withers to me, he's Everett. I've known him a long time. We followed each other at some different jobs… Everett's a really good football coach." – McNeill on UNC head coach Everett Withers
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Bryn Renner vs. ECU's 3-4 Defense
Credit McNeill with making a drastic change just before the start of spring practice to scrap his 4-3 scheme for a 3-4 look in an attempt to increase ECU's athleticism on the field. Despite a small sample size, the Pirates are able to put some faith in the current statistical rankings due to games against two top-15 nationally-ranked teams.
East Carolina is holding its opponents to 12.0 fewer points, 34.0 fewer rushing yards, 83.8 fewer passing yards and 117.8 total yards in 2011 compared to 2010.
Linebackers Daniel Drake and Jeremy Grove pace the Pirates with 39 tackles apiece, while safety Damon Magazu has posted 20 tackles and two interceptions, recovering one of seven opponent fumbles.
"On defense we've worked on continuing to have a group of guys that, on a high percentage of snaps, are doing their jobs schematically and fundamentally," McNeill said last week. "That has been a key reason for success. It hasn't been by accident or luck. We're not even close to where we can be, though."
UNC quarterback Bryn Renner and his offensive cohorts are anxious to get back on the field after a poor showing against Georgia Tech's 3-4 defense on Saturday. The red-shirt sophomore quarterback was sacked five times, threw two ill-advised interceptions and struggled to get his team rolling in the first half after a strong opening drive.
Renner praised Georgia Tech's defensive game plan, but also pointed the finger back to his own sideline in explaining UNC's 30 total yards on 17 plays in its final six possessions of the first half.
"Self-inflicted wounds — jumping offsides, not taking care of the ball, just little things," Renner said. "Coach Withers preaches little things are going to make or break this team … Self inflicted wounds, we can't have those."
Despite Renner's glaring miscues (6 INT), he still ranks 13th nationally in passing efficiency while completing 77.9 percent of his passes (74-of-95) for 897 yards and seven touchdowns.
Helping UNC's cause is ECU's struggle to pressure the quarterback, as evidenced by just four sacks – three of which occurred against UAB – and 10 quarterback hurries on the season. The Pirates rank 14th in pass efficiency defense (97.56) and 17th in pass defense (168.3), but those numbers are skewed due to the fact that South Carolina and Virginia combined for 461 rushing yards on 90 carries, good for a 5.1-yards-per-carry average.
Look for UNC offensive coordinator John Shoop to lean on his ground game (166.5 ypg, 50th nationally) to take pressure off Renner this weekend.
ECU's Spread Offense vs. UNC's Defense
The Tar Heels entered the 2011 season with a stacked defense thought to be one of the best in the ACC. But through four games, that unit has just been average. UNC ranks sixth in the league in total defense (354.8 ypg), seventh in rushing defense (135.5) and pass defense (219.3) and ninth in pass efficiency defense (129.8).
Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman has been crafty in adding those components together and allowing just 21.0 points per game (3rd ACC).
Starting cornerback Jabari Price is expected to return this week and will provide a needed boost of talent in the secondary, as safety-turned-cornerback Tre Boston has been picked on in his absence through four games.
The Pirates' spread attack utilizes three-step drops and quick throws to running backs to neutralize defensive linemen and force an opponent's back seven to make plays in space.
UNC ranks T-32nd nationally in sacks (2.5 per game) and 34th in tackles for loss (6.75), but defensive end Quinton Coples understands his unit's success will not necessary be replicated in the stat book.
"A pass block is just as good as a sack, especially in a crucial situation like third down," Coples said. "We did a great job of that last year. That's definitely going to have a big impact on the game."
After spending all of last week preparing for a run-heavy offense, North Carolina's practice this week will focus on a pass-heavy approach.
"This week it'll be about being able to line up against a bunch of different formations that really spread the field and being able to stop the run and obviously stop the pass, because this team will have a little bit more emphasis on throwing the football down the field," Withers said.
Second-year starting quarterback Dominique Davis (92-of-136 passing, 748 yards, 7 TD, 5 INT) struggled against the Hokies and Gamecocks before lighting up UAB for 361 yards and three touchdowns on 35-of-42 passing.
His top two targets are Lance Lewis (24 catches, 194 yards, 4 TD; pictured right) and Justin Hardy (21 catches, 212 yards, 2 TD), while JuCo transfer sensation Reggie Bullock (47 rushes, 246 yards, TD; 9 catches, 37 yards) provides a legitimate option at tailback.
North Carolina will try to exploit ECU's first down struggles that arose against South Carolina and Virginia Tech. In those losses, the Pirates only averaged 2.2 yards on 56 first down snaps.