Schedule Preview: East Carolina

North Carolina welcomes East Carolina to Chapel Hill on Sept. 19 for a noon kickoff on ESPN/ESPN2. The Pirates return 16 starters from a team that claimed the 2008 C-USA Championship, and there's little doubt that the ECU faithful are looking to defeat the Tar Heels for the second time in three seasons.

Overview: Skip Holtz entertained the notion of taking the Syracuse job last December, but the fifth-year East Carolina head coach elected to stay put in Greenville, N.C. And when you take a long look at what Holtz has returning for the 2009 campaign, it's easy to see why – the Pirates welcome back eight starters on both sides of the ball, including versatile quarterback Patrick Pinkney (223-of-363 passing, 2675 yards, 13 TD, 7 INT) and first-team All C-USA safety Van Eskridge (97 tackles, four interceptions).

East Carolina defeated Tulsa, 27-24, to win its first league title in 32 years last December, and an opportunistic defense was the key ingredient in the program's 9-5 (6-2) record. The Pirates led the conference in total defense (333 ypg, 41st nationally) and scoring defense (21.1 ppg, 30th), while finishing second in pass defense (197.2 ypg, 46th) and third in rushing defense (135.8 ypg, 48th). The losses of Pierre Bell and Quentin Cotton hurt at linebacker, but Nick Johnson (102 tkl, 9 tfl) emerged as a force in the middle and will secure the second line this fall. First-team All C-USA C.J. Wilson is just as dangerous at defensive end, totaling 70 tackles, 10.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss in '08.

The offense was unable to survive the injury bug last fall as well as its defensive counterpart, resulting in a permanent residence in the lower half of the conference standings – total offense (8th C-USA, 79th nationally – 340.4 ypg). But Pinkney's primary receiving threat returns in Dwayne Harris (58 catches, 654 yards, TD) and it's always a positive when four starting offensive linemen are back. The main area of concern for the Pirates is at running back, following the departure of their top-two running backs in Norman Whitley (698 yards, 4 TD) and Brandon Simmons (474 yards, 7 TD). Kentucky transfer Brandon Jackson moved to the front of the line with a strong showing in the spring.

A Sixth Year for Pinkney: Rarely does news in January have such a dramatic effect on a football program's expectations for the following season, but East Carolina was happy to serve as an exception to that rule. On Jan. 23, the NCAA granted Pinkney's request for a sixth season of eligibility in '09. The Fayetteville, N.C. product missed the entire 2005 season due to a shoulder injury and subsequent multiple surgical procedures, but will now have the opportunity to potentially guide the Pirates to consecutive C-USA Championships.

Pinkney currently ranks fifth in the ECU record books with 4,033 passing yards and sixth in completions with 344. With 27 games played and 18 starts to his credit, the 6-foot, 205-pounder has delivered 24 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions while also rushing for 356 yards and two touchdowns. Against North Carolina on Sept. 8, 2007, Pinkney threw for a career-high 406 yards and three touchdowns on 31-of-41 passing in leading the Pirates to a 34-31 victory.

New Blood at Tailback: Brandon Jackson was a 3-star running back recruit out of Eugene, Ore. that originally signed with Kentucky in 2007. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder switched his commitment from California to the Wildcats just weeks before Signing Day, but his stay in Lexington was short-lived -- Jackson was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules in March '08. Rich Brooks' loss could possibly be Holtz's gain, however, as the red-shirt sophomore exploded to the top of the depth chart at running back during spring practice.

Quirky Schedule: If you are a ECU football diehard but you love having your Saturdays free in the fall, then the '09 slate has set up perfectly for you. The Pirates host Rice for Homecoming on Oct. 17, and then have to wait 35 days until UAB rolls into town on Nov. 21 for another Saturday kickoff. East Carolina travels to Memphis for a Tuesday night showdown on Oct. 27 before hosting Virginia Tech for a Thursday night contest on Nov. 5. The calendar roulette game ends on Nov. 15, when the Pirates travel to Tulsa for a Sunday kickoff. Unfortunately, Monday, Wednesday and Friday got the raw end of the deal and were left out of consideration.

Key Game: Southern Miss on Nov. 28. The Pirates catch a break the C-USA schedule by avoiding West favorite Houston, setting up what should be a season-ending clash with Southern Miss in Greenville for the East Division crown and a trip to the conference title game on Dec. 5. East Carolina has dropped 11 of its last 13 contests to the Golden Eagles, including last season's 21-3 defeat that marked the program's fewest points scored since 1997.

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5    Appalachian State 
Sept. 12   @ West Virginia
Sept. 19   @ North Carolina
Sept. 26   Central Florida
Oct. 3     @ Marshall
Oct. 10    @ SMU
Oct. 17    Rice
Oct. 27    @ Memphis
Nov. 5     Virginia Tech
Nov. 15    @ Tulsa
Nov. 21    UAB  
Nov. 28    Southern Miss  

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