Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. ECU

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Things are about to get personal at Kenan Stadium as No. 19 North Carolina welcomes in-state rival East Carolina to town for a Saturday showdown (noon/ESPN2).

The Tar Heels (2-0) enter the 12th edition of this controversial rivalry as a 7.5-point favorite, while boasting an 8-2-1 overall series lead. But the Pirates (1-1) delivered the last blow in 2007, handing Butch Davis his first loss as UNC's head coach down in Greenville, 34-31. These two programs met eight times between 1972 and 1981, but it took political persuasion to reignite the rivalry in 2001. East Carolina's only other series win occurred in Chapel Hill in 1975 when the Pirates secured a 38-17 decision.

"The challenge escalates that much more this week for a number of reasons," ECU head coach Skip Holtz said. "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."

Davis is all too familiar with East Carolina, owning a 0-3 record against the Pirates despite winning four games as an assistant at Miami. ACC contests typically carry more weight than nonconference games for the North Carolina program, but welcoming ECU to Chapel Hill always gets the blood boiling.

"Even though it's not a conference opponent, it's a big game," Davis said. "I had the privilege of being at the University of Miami and you would play Florida State when we were both independents and you play Florida, who was outside the conference. All of those games take on significant importance from the standpoint that these kids know each other. The alumni all know each other [and] they live next door to each other."

Junior free safety Deunta Williams understands the magnitude of this rivalry having grown up in the Eastern part of the state in Jacksonville.

"It's a little personal for me," Williams said. "I want to make sure that I get that message across to everybody else. It's definitely personal. It's one (game) that I'll always remember for the rest of my life… That's not to say it's more important than any of the rest of them that we're going to play, but right now this is the only game that matters."

And while these programs and fan bases don't need any extra fuel added to the fire, Holtz fired the first shot across the bow earlier this week, highlighting UNC's perceived elitism.

"I understand the significance, magnitude and history of this series," Holtz said. "Not just on the football field, either. It extends to the way this university has been developed. I know there are a lot of things that makes this a huge rivalry game. I know, and our players know, the importance of this game… Many of our players were told they weren't good enough to play at North Carolina. This will be a game that they put a chip on their shoulders for."

The Tar Heels are back home after a near-miraculous come-from-behind road victory against Connecticut (12-10) last weekend, while East Carolina followed up a season-opening home victory over Appalachian State with a 35-20 loss to West Virginia in Morgantown.

Both programs have plenty of question marks heading into the third week of the '09 season.

For North Carolina, the concerns lie with coordinator John Shoop's offense. While the UNC defense is allowing just 174.5 yards per game, T.J. Yates (32-of-52, 347 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) and Co. are churning out just 321.5 yards per contest. Injuries have played a significant role in that early-season development and health will continue to be an issue as center Lowell Dyer (shoulder) and tight end Zack Pianalto (foot) will join fellow starter and wide receiver Dwight Jones (knee) on the sidelines this weekend.

On the other side of the field, East Carolina has struggled on both sides of the ball – the Pirates rank 102nd in total offense (278.5 ypg) and 82nd in total defense (377.5 ypg). Sixth-year senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney (28-of-66, 306 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) has watched as his squad has been outscored 31-2 in the second half in the first two games of the season.

East Carolina does return two starters in the secondary in cornerback Emmanuel Davis and safety Levin Neal, giving the Pirates reason for optimism that their defense can finally live up to its preseason hype – just as North Carolina's defense has done for eight quarters.

"I don't think this game is going to be 42-41," Holtz said. "When you look at both team's defenses, I don't think that will be the case. I see it playing out as a low-scoring game. One mistake could be the difference in this game."

North Carolina is looking to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 1997.

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