Since a 20-year break in this in-state rivalry lasting from 1981-2001, UNC and ECU (1-2) have played five times over the past 10 years and Saturday will mark the fourth time in the past five years. The schools announced a home-and-home series for the 2012-113 seasons on Thursday.
Approximately 100 miles separate Chapel Hill and Greenville, and with well over 100 players from the state of North Carolina comprising both rosters, the proximity geographically and socially has reignited a boisterous rivalry.
"This is big," said UNC defensive Quinton Coples, who grew up 30 minutes from Greenville in Kinston. "A lot of my family's going to be there. Everybody's going to be watching. Deep down in my heart, it's a must-win situation."
East Carolina plays the little brother card in constantly vying for respect from the four in-state ACC schools, while North Carolina serves the big brother role as its fan base often brushes off the notion that the Pirates represent a true rival.
UNC head coach Everett Withers, a Charlotte native, doesn't share that belief.
"I think it is a rivalry," Withers said. "When you're the University of North Carolina, you want to beat every school in this state. … It doesn't matter what school it is. We know it's a rivalry. We know it's a tough game. There are a lot of relationships in this rivalry, there's some recruiting battles and deals in this rivalry. We know what it is."
This game carries even more importance for East Carolina as the C-USA member is hoping to benefit by the recent conference realignment craze to move into a BCS league. The Pirates have lost 12 of their last 13 games against BCS-level competition, including a pair of losses to South Carolina (56-37) and Virginia Tech (17-10) this season.
North Carolina delivered two of those losses to East Carolina – a 31-17 win in '09 and a 42-17 victory in ‘10.
The Pirates jumped out to a 14-7 lead last season and held a 17-14 margin midway through the third quarter, but the Tar Heels established their running game and milked over 20 minutes off the clock in the final 24:30 of regulation.
"I think the key was that we were able to run the ball and keep them off the field," Withers said when asked about the '10 win. "I think we ran for 200-plus yards last year – that was a big key to keeping their offense off the field. When you get ahead and they have to throw deeper down the field, then your pass rush comes into play."
The Tar Heels will attempt to replicate that performance on Saturday behind Gio Bernard (402 yards, 6 TD, 7.4 ypc). The red-shirt freshman tailback stands fourth nationally among rookie runners with a 100.5-yards-per-game average. Bernard is looking for his third straight 100-yard game, which hasn't been accomplished since 1992 (Natrone Means).
North Carolina struggled to keep Georgia Tech off the field in its loss to the Yellow Jackets last Saturday, prompting criticism directed at offensive coordinator John Shoop and red-shirt sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner.
Renner (74-of-95 passing, 897 yards, 7 TD, 6 INT) acknowledged the importance of sustaining drives earlier this week after UNC managed just 30 yards and one first down on its final six possessions of the first half in Atlanta.
"It's really going to rely on our offense to stay on the field to keep possessions going," Renner said. "It's the same theme; the more time we can control the ball, the better we have a chance to win. And it's going to be huge this week."
The Yellow Jackets totaled a staggering seven sacks on Saturday, but Withers spread the blame around to his quarterback and running backs in addition to his offensive line. That collective group will be looking to rebound against East Carolina's new 3-4 defensive scheme that allowed 461 rushing yards against its first two BCS opponents this season.
"We face another offensive line that has a lot of returning starters," ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said. "Our defensive line will have another challenge. That's where the game will be won - up front. We have to make sure we're ready to face an experienced offensive line. They have size and athleticism up front."
Defensively, North Carolina will be looking to bounce back after Virginia and Georgia Tech combined to post 964 total yards and 482 rushing yards over the past two weeks.
Starting linebacker Zach Brown (25 tkl, 4.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks) returns from suspension and cornerback Jabari Price (hand) returns from injury for UNC to offset the probable loss of starting strong safety Jonathan Smith (16 tkl, TFL) to an ankle injury. Punt returner/cornerback Todd Harrelson is also available to play after having his suspension lifted for violating team rules.
The Tar Heels rank T-32nd nationally in sacks (2.5 per game) and 34th in tackles for loss (6.75), but Pirates quarterback Dominique Davis (92-of-136 passing, 748 yards, 7 TD, 5 INT) will attempt to survive that pressure with plenty of three-step drops that serve as a calling card for offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's pass-happy spread offense.
East Carolina has not been as explosive through three games this season as it was in '10, churning out just 333.0 yards of total offense (97th nationally) and 25.0 points per game (81st). North Carolina's defense has also failed to live up to its preseason billing in allowing 354.75 yards of offense (55th) and 21.0 points per game (42nd).
A win would improve North Carolina to 4-1 for the first time since 2008 and mark its seventh straight win over a nonconference opponent.