"They're just telling me it's one of the craziest atmospheres that I'll be in, especially playing there," said freshman H-back Zack Pianalto, a Springdale, Ark. native. "Apparently our fans don't really get along too much. I don't know what it is about the rivalry, but I've always liked going to opponents' stadiums and playing away games. I think it gets me more pumped up and ready to play."
The rivalry is deep-rooted with backroom political plots and fan base personality conflicts, but for the players, the anticipation for the game has more to do with knowing numerous competitors on the other side of the field. North Carolina's defensive secondary will start three players that grew up less than two hours from the ECU campus – safeties Trimane Goddard and Deunta Williams, as well as cornerback Kendric Burney.
But this young and inexperienced Tar Heel squad is doing its best to stay on an even keel heading into their road opener.
"Every game is really important, whether it be a rivalry or not," senior linebacker Durell Mapp said. "It's always a big game, especially when it's in-state. There's always a rivalry there, because you want to be at the top in North Carolina. That's what makes it real big for us."
East Carolina played well in an emotional setting last Saturday at Virginia Tech, losing a defensive struggle, 17-7. Third-year ECU head coach Skip Holtz understands the importance of this weekend's game against North Carolina, and is looking forward to his program's home opener.
"This is obviously a great rivalry game for our fans..." Holtz said. "You can be fierce rivals on the field but you can also play with excitement, emotion and sportsmanship. That being said, it is still a rivalry for the East Carolina family. We are 1-8-1 in our only 10 games with [the Tar Heels] and we have lost those by an average score of 35-10. Many of our players have played with kids on the North Carolina team and we know it will be a great challenge."
The Tar Heels' season-opening 37-14 victory over James Madison provided a glimpse into the type of offense they will see at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
"James Madison's offense is pretty much similar to East Carolina, but the talent level is dramatically different," head coach Butch Davis said. "Their offensive line is significantly bigger and stronger, their running backs are a lot faster, and their quarterback – while he may not be Michael Vick – will remind you an awful lot of Michael Vick."
East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney combined with running backs Dominique Lindsey and Chris Johnson to rush for 142 yards and one touchdown against a solid Hokie defensive unit, but the true barometer in this game will come when North Carolina red-shirt freshman quarterback T.J. Yates and his offense take the field against an ECU defense that held Virginia Tech to 278 total yards – yielding only a net total of 33 yards on the ground.
"That's one thing that we know going into this game -- they have a talented front seven, with their defensive line and their linebackers," Pianalto said. "We're not scared of their front seven -- we're going to try to establish the run and obviously, if they give us the pass, we'll take it. But more or less the game planning is whatever they give us, we're going to take that and just try to do as well as we can."
A North Carolina victory would mark the first time since 2000 that the Tar Heels started a season 2-0.