The Tar Heels (2-0) are a Vegas underdog for just the fifth time under Larry Fedora as the Pirates (2-1) are favored by three points. UNC leads the overall series, 12-3-1.
ECU’s 55-31 win over UNC last season has been described by Tar Heel players as “embarrassing” this week. The Pirates totaled 603 yards of offense on 101 plays, although their most decided advantage came in the emotion category.
“You can lose at any instance if you don’t come ready to play,” UNC safety Tim Scott said. “It’s college football and it’s very unpredictable. The team that comes out to play and plays more energized and smarter wins.”
Despite UNC owning a better record to date, the momentum appears to be in ECU’s favor following its 28-21 upset win over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech last Saturday. Two weeks ago, the Pirates trailed No. South Carolina by a touchdown in Columbia before Elliott Fry secured the 33-23 victory with a field goal with 1:30 to play.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, trailed FCS opponent Liberty in the third quarter of their opener before closing strong with a 56-29 win and then rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit against San Diego State to claim a 31-27 victory.
UNC suffered a critical loss against the Aztecs as junior right guard Landon Turner left in the second quarter with a knee injury. True freshman Jared Cohen will start in his place in Greenville, which has limited the scope of assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell’s game plan.
“The amount of plays that we’re putting in this week are definitely toned down,” Cohen said. “Obviously, that helps, but at the same time, I probably could have handled more. But toning it down really helps me focus on the certain plays and excel at those, so it helps.”
UNC will start four underclassmen and a junior in Will Dancy (making his third career start) along the offensive line. The Tar Heels have leaned on quarterback Marquise Williams’s scrambling skills (team-high 115 rushing yards) to offset the youth up front, although the Pirates’ run defense (112.0 ypg, 34th nationally) could represent the toughest challenge to date.
“They do a good job of stopping the run,” Littrell said. “You look at the tape and there’s not a lot of big runs against them. They have big D-linemen, they play heavy technique and they’re going to force your guys to be good on double teams and they’re going to let their backers run, so we’ve got a big test in front of us.”
ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill scripted practices this week to stress containment in limiting Williams’s ability to plunder the middle of the field for chunks of yardage with his feet.
“He'll know what Larry wants as far as ball distribution and being able to extend plays with his feet, but he's got some weapons around him, so we have to be concerned with doing our jobs and make sure we continue to make routine plays,” McNeill said. “If we have a job of containing him on a play, we have to make sure we're there and being sound because he can do all of it."
Littrell also highlighted the fact that ECU’s defense practices daily against many of the same passing concepts that UNC utilizes. Littrell and ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley coached together from 2005-08 under Mike Leach and his Air Raid offensive scheme at Texas Tech.
“They understand their scheme and they play it really well right now,” Fedora said. “I think their personnel really fits what they’re trying to do.”
Defensively, the Tar Heels committed 37 missed assignments last season and understand that limiting those miscues is critical in slowing down quarterback Shane Carden (81-of-130 passing, 1,031 yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) and his wide receiver corps, led by senior Justin Hardy (289 career catches; 61 receptions shy of the D-1 record).
“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” defensive tackle Ethan Farmer said. “Get out on the road and show everybody in the country how good we are.”
While offense and defense command the daily talking points, UNC’s Ryan Switzer may have an opportunity to establish himself against the Pirates’ punt team.
Worth Gregory is averaging a tremendous 48.4 yards per punt, but has forced just one fair catch and his cover team is allowing 8.4 yards per return (78th nationally).
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