The Pirates enter Saturday's contest against North Carolina with a 1-1 (0-0) record. Head coach Skip Holtz's squad held off FCS opponent Appalachian State, 29-24, in the season opener on Sept. 5, before falling to West Virginia, 35-20, last weekend in Morgantown. The defending Conference-USA champions had high preseason hopes of challenging for a BCS bowl berth with 16 returning starters, but second-half struggles have been the main storyline in the first two weeks of the season.
East Carolina has been outscored 31-2 and outgained 404-127 after intermission in September, and the defense is allowing 377.5 yards per game after giving up just 333.0 per contest last season. West Virginia gained 267 yards on eight plays against the Pirates on Saturday, highlighting ECU's vulnerability to the big play.
"With all that being said about West Virginia, the challenge escalates that much more this week for a number of reasons - it's an in-state game that is very emotional for our players, fan base and alumni. With the North Carolina and East Carolina fan bases being so intertwined, there's an awful lot that goes into this game emotionally. It's going to be difficult." – ECU head coach Skip Holtz
"This is a much, much faster football team than the one that we played last weekend. They're a lot more aggressive defensively. Their front seven is very talented. They're big [and] they're physical in both the offensive and defensive line, and they've got a lot of speed at the skill positions." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"When you look at North Carolina, it's a very good football team. I'm impressed with the athleticism Coach Davis has put together over the last few years. They've always had some good players, but now, top to bottom, I'm very impressed with their athleticism." – Holtz
Back on Jan. 23, the NCAA granted Patrick Pinkney's request for a sixth season of eligibility this fall. The Fayetteville, N.C. product missed the entire 2005 season due to a shoulder injury and subsequent multiple surgical procedures, but he's now back for another opportunity to steer the Pirate ship one final time.
Despite East Carolina's offense having to fight through an injury-plagued '08 season, the preseason expectations were that Pinkney and seven other returning offense starters would turn things around in '09. But things haven't gone according to plan quite yet, as the Pirates are churning out just 278.5 yards per game.
"I think the passing game was a little bit out of whack," Holtz said on Monday. "It's never just one guy. I know Patrick Pinkney is going to take the brunt of it being the quarterback. As a quarterback, you probably get too much credit when we win and too much blame when we lose."
The sixth-year quarterback (28-of-66, 306 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) has watched his wide receivers drop eight passes in the first two games. But North Carolina won't be lulled into a false sense of security on Saturday, as many of UNC's current defensive starters were on the field two seasons ago when 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.
"He's an excellent athlete," UNC safety Deunta Williams said. "It's just like Pat White – people thought that he was going to be able to destroy us running the ball, but he destroyed us passing the ball. So I think we have to prepare for him to be at his best."
Matchups to Watch
North Carolina's passing attack vs. East Carolina's pass defense
While there's no question that North Carolina's passing offense has a long road to travel before earning distinction as a lethal assault, Saturday's 12-10 victory over Connecticut provided a dose of optimism for the Tar Heels. Offensive coordinator John Shoop's halftime adjustments that included moving T.J. Yates around in the pocket to offset the Huskies' pressure finally paid off during the final 16 minutes of play. The red-shirt junior quarterback completed 11-of-14 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown during that stretch, capitalizing on tight end Zack Pianalto (seven catches for 87 yards, TD) and wide receiver Greg Little (8 catches for 45 yards).
"I think he's a great competitor," Holtz said of Yates. "He has really matured. I know they're struggling a little bit at this point offensively, but it's certainly not because of him. He's throwing the ball well. They're young at wide receiver and have basically a new offensive line."
With Pianalto likely joining Dwight Jones on the sideline this Saturday, Yates will be forced to find other targets such as Erik Highsmith or Josh Adams to help Little against an East Carolina secondary that allowed WVU's Jarrett Brown to complete 24-of-31 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns last weekend.
The Pirates are hoping that starting cornerback Emmanuel Davis and starting safety Levin Neal will be able to return to action this week after injuries sidelines them against West Virginia.
East Carolina's ground game vs. North Carolina's rush defense
The Pirates returned a talented stable of running backs to compliment Pinkney's passing ability this fall, but the inability for the rushing attack to get on the tracks against West Virginia (62 net yards) made the offense one-dimensional and thus unable to move the ball in the second half.
"Against West Virginia, when we handed the ball to the running backs and let them run downhill, I thought we ran well at times," Holtz said. "We did not run well consistently. When you start adding in lost yards, sacks and the last two possessions when we're trying to overcome two scores and you're throwing every down, your running stats don't show up as much in the end."
Things won't get any easier as the Tar Heel defense is allowing just 51.0 rushing yards per game, including holding UConn's tandem of Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon to 87 yards on the ground.
"This is a very good defensive football team," Holtz said of UNC. "They remind me a lot of the Virginia Tech team we played two years ago that finished No. 1 in the country in total defense."
The bad news for East Carolina is that starting running back Dominique Lindsay (23 rushes for 133 yards, 2 TD) injured his shoulder and is currently listed as doubtful for Saturday's contest. Backups Brandon Jackson (15 rushes for 91 yards, TD) and Jon Williams (eight rushes for 31 yards) will be called upon if Lindsay is unable to go.