The 2014 college football season is just three weeks old, but last weekend ECU made a big splash with a 28-21 road win over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech. Of course, North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora and his team are well aware of the amount of damage Ruffin McNeill’s Pirates can inflict. Last September, East Carolina arrived and Chapel Hill and delivered arguably the worst defeat of the Fedora era with a 55-31 blowout. The Pirates are favored this time around and boast a bounty of starters (particularly on offense) that know how to beat North Carolina at its own game.
When North Carolina breaks down this Pirates’ offense, it’s a little bit like looking in the mirror. Like UNC, East Carolina runs an up-tempo spread attack, although the Tar Heels scheme is predicated more on balance than Lincoln Riley’s aerial assault. ECU quarterback Shane Carden, who accounted for six touchdowns against UNC in 2013, is back under center for his senior season (62.3 completion percentage, 1,031 yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) and is accompanied by a stable of quality receiving options. The prized horse of East Carolina’s receiving corps is senior Justin Hardy. Hardy is one of the most accomplished pass catchers in FBS History (289 catches, 3,314 yards and 27 touchdowns for his career) and needs just 84 catches this season to become the all-time FBS leader in receptions. Hardy, along with senior Cam Worthy and sophomore Isaiah Jones, all have over 200 yards receiving already in 2014, and each are a threat to score in the red zone.
East Carolina’s defense has arguably been as good as its offense. The Pirates have played two AP top-25 teams on the road (beating Virginia Tech and a 10-point loss to South Carolina) and are certainly not afraid to bring the pressure. Second-year defensive coordinator Rick Smith has successfully implemented a 3-4 scheme that dominated a veteran Virginia Tech offensive line and held the Hokies to 91 yards rushing. So far this season, the Pirates have allowed just 3.3 yards per attempt on the ground and 5.8 yards per completion.
From a scoreboard standpoint, ECU ranks 57th nationally in scoring offense (34.3) and 42nd in scoring defense (20.3). The Pirates received votes in both polls and will be looking to move into the top-25 with a win over a second-straight ranked opponent in front of a sold-out Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium crowd.
“I thought that East Carolina is a really good football team. I read all the headlines that they upset Virginia Tech, and I’ll tell you what, from the very beginning it was a heck of a game. Offensively, they could pretty much do no wrong in the first quarter. Whatever they did worked. They were playing really well with a lot of confidence. I don’t think they were affected by the crowd, or the hype, or anything. I thought they went in with a lot of confidence and played like that throughout the entire game.” –Fedora on East Carolina’s win over Virginia Tech
”I don't bring it up. Each team's personality is different. We don't have to bring it up because of what we keep preaching. We know we're facing a talented team as I mentioned before. I'm anxious to dive into the film a little more because they got on a great streak at the end of last year."- McNeill’s response to how he compares this year’s North Carolina team to the 2013 edition
UNC’s Interior Offensive Line vs. ECU’s Defensive Line
This positional matchup was always going to be a problem for UNC, but the absence of starting right guard Landon Turner with an undisclosed injury will put even greater pressure on an inexperienced front five. True freshmen Jared Cohen, who did an admirable job subbing in for Turner against San Diego State, is expected to get the start at right guard. Sophomore center Lucas Crowley struggled against the Aztecs, while last season’s starting left guard, Caleb Peterson, has slowly worked back into the rotation as a reserve behind Will Dancy following an ankle injury in training camp. On the other side of the line will be an experienced defensive trio, headlined by nose tackle Terry Williams, who sat out last season due to a violation of team policies. The 6-foot-1, 353-pound tackle wreaked havoc in limited snaps against Virginia Tech (5 tackles, 0.5 sacks). If UNC’s interior line can’t contain Williams and his fellow linemen, expect the running game problems to continue and for quarterback Marquise Williams to be a bigger focus carrying the ball.
UNC’s Secondary vs. East Carolina’s Passing Attack
In training camp there was a lot of hype surrounding this Tar Heel secondary. With the Week 1 suspensions to four defensive backs, including starting cornerbacks Brian Walker and Des Lawrence, UNC’s matchup against San Diego State was the first chance to see if this group could live up to all of that praise. The answer was yes. UNC picked off three passes, including Tim Scott’s game-saving pick in the end zone with 14 seconds left. Riley’s Air Raid principles will provide a much more difficult challenge than Bob Toledo’s West Coast approach, although the Aztecs did churn out 341 passing yards. Crossing routes and plays designed to create isolation in open grass will pit the Tar Heels’ youth against the Pirates’ experienced talent, headlined by Hardy.
ECU Seeks Second Straight Win Over Heels
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