Saturday's game is urgent for the Tar Heels, who are coming off back to back heart-breaking losses on the road at Wake Forest and Louisville. UNC head coach Larry Fedora is familiar with ECU, dating back to his days when he was the head coach at Southern Miss and he made it clear that his team would not overlook the Pirates.
"We have some knowledge (of ECU), because we've played them for the last couple of years and you see a big improvement each year with Ruffin's team," said Fedora. "He's got them playing hard. They're going to come in our stadium they're going to play hard no matter what and they're still throwing the ball all over the park on offense and they've shown that they can score some points."
The Tar Heels have a potent passing attack that is led by junior signal caller Bryn Renner. Renner set the single-season school record in touchdown passes with 26 in 2011. Even though the Heels are banged up at wide receiver, expect them to have success in the passing game against ECU's injured and battered secondary with Renner and some of the towering weapons he has on the outside like senior wide receiver Erik Highsmith, who had a 75 yard touchdown catch in UNC's 35-20 win at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium last season. Speaking of injuries, UNC is likely to be without sophomore wideouts Reggie Wilkins and T.J. Thorpe but are optimistic that senior wide receiver Jheranie Boyd will be back in the lineup.
As for the Pirates, they are rolling into Chapel Hill with momentum after last Saturday's 24-14 win at Southern Miss. Even though he was only 13-27 for 171 yards passing, Shane Carden did a lot of good things in his first career start as ECU's signal caller. One of those things was taking care of the football. It was the first time this season the Pirates didn't turn over the ball. He also displayed a mobile part of his game that Rio Johnson hadn't when he scored an eight yard quarterback keeper that allowed the Pirates to take control of the game.
After only running the ball on three plays in the first half, nineteen in whole against South Carolina, the ECU offense was balanced against Southern Miss and had a great contribution from junior tailback Vintavious Cooper, who rushed for 51 yards on 13 carries. Even with the improvement of the ground game, ECU will need more from Carden to knock off North Carolina on the hill. It will help that an already inexperienced secondary is banged up as their promising starting safety Sam Smiley's status is uncertain. ECU sophomore wide receiver Justin Hardy is off to a great start this season with 19 grabs for 241 yards and three touchdowns. With a lot of uncertainty in the UNC secondary, expect to see a lot of Justin Hardy on Saturday.
As aforementioned, ECU has some injuries in the secondary as well. Senior cornerback Jacobi Jenkins will miss the game while fellow senior cornerback Kristopher Sykes' is listed as questionable. Defensive end Justin Dixon will also miss the game with his knee injury. On the bright side, it appears the Pirates will have two of their senior leaders on defense returning in nose tackle Michael Brooks and cornerback Leonard Paulk, both of which missed last week's game in Hattiesburg.
Saturday's game has an opportunity to be a signature win for the ECU football program. The last time the Pirates had a marquee win against a ranked opponent or an in-state rival was in 2010 when ECU took down N.C. State in an overtime thriller at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Here are the keys for the Pirates to knock off the Tar Heels …
Keys to the Game:
1. Don't give up the BIG play- It would be unrealistic to expect the Pirates' defense to completely shut down a dangerous North Carolina offense on the road. That being said, the ECU defense gave up two long touchdowns of 47 and 75 yards in last year's meeting. That can't happen in this game because momentum and tempo will be vital.
2. Get to the quarterback- It seemed like the Pirates front seven was in the Southern Miss backfield all game long last weekend. If the Pirates can do the same thing against UNC, it would be a great feat considering the Tar Heels have one of the best offensive lines in the ACC and arguably the country. Expect defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell to bring pressure and consequently force Bryn Renner into making mistakes.
3. Special teams- ECU's special teams have been the most pleasant surprise this season. They have shown vast improvement from a season ago and punter Trent Tignor has been nothing short but remarkable. Last week, he punted the ball on ten occasions and averaged just over 42 yards per punt, including two inside the USM three yard line. Field position is always important, especially when trying to win on the road.
Even though I do expect the Pirates to play well in this game, I think the Tar Heels need this game more and will get the win on their home field.
Prediction: North Carolina- 31, East Carolina- 23.