The last time the East Carolina football team won in Chapel Hill, its current head coach, Ruffin McNeill, was a senior at Lumberton High School.
Since then, the Pirates have lost eight times at Kenan Memorial Stadium and tied once. And in each of the last four seasons, North Carolina has beaten the Pirates by an average of 19 points per game.
Those trends came to a screeching halt on Saturday afternoon.
Instead, ECU (3-1) thoroughly dominated the Tar Heels (1-3) with a resounding, 55-31, win that was nearly 40 years in the making.
“It was well overdue,” said ECU quarterback Shane Carden. “It obviously feels better to win like that against a team that sometimes people in your home town don’t pick you to win.
We believe in ourselves and, good or bad, we’ll continue to listen what’s inside of our locker room … and avoid all of the outside noise.”
Two weeks removed from throwing three interceptions and mustering just 10 points against Virginia Tech, Carden was superb – completing 32 of his 47 passes for 376 yards, three touchdowns with an interception, while rushing for three scores as well.
In that game against the Hokies, Pirates tailback Vintavious Cooper had just four touches in the second half and like Carden, had a considerable bounce-back performance against UNC. On his 43 touches (35 rushes, 8 receptions), Cooper collected a career-best for all-purpose yards (256), which include 196 yards on the ground.
Altogether, the ECU offense ran 101 offensive plays – 54 runs, 47 passes – for 601 yards and held the ball for over 36 minutes of game time.
“I thought (offensive coordinator) Lincoln Riley did a great job of blending his calls,” said McNeill. “He had a great game-plan coming in. We were able throw the football, but also to run the football – balance is the key for any football team.”
Although, Saturday’s game may seem like a program-defining win from afar, the Pirates say their performance simply reflects how well they expect to play on a game-to-game basis. But given the setting and the team on the other end of the field, there was a feeling that ECU football may have earned some respect Saturday, statewide and nationally.
“Definitely it did,” said senior safety Chip Thompson, who had a team-best nine tackles and an interception. “We know what we can do, we just have to prove it to everyone else and we’re ready for the next opponent.”
The message was sent early on with ECU jumping out in front 14-0 in the first quarter on a pair of Carden touchdown passes to Justin Hardy and Lance Ray. Trailing by two scores, UNC responded by driving inside the Pirates’ 10-yard line, but were held out of the endzone and forced to settle for a chip-shot Thomas Moore field goal.
The defensive stop allowed them to stretch their lead to 21-3 on the first of Carden’s three one-yard touchdown runs – capping a six-play, 76-yard drive that only took 1:26. ECU went into halftime leading 28-10.
Following a UNC three-and-out to begin the second half, ECU took its largest lead of the game (25) with a three-yard touchdown run by Chris Hairston. And from that point on, the Pirates were able to coast to its first BCS win since N.C. State in 2010.
“I told Ruffin (McNeill) before the game this is by far his best team,” said UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora. “He’s got his guys in there, they understand what he’s trying to do and they believe in what he’s doing and they’re playing like that.”
Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner did his part in trying to keep his club in it. He went 28-for-46 passing for 366 yards and three touchdowns, while surrendering a first-quarter interception that resulted in an ECU touchdown.
Despite nearly compiling 400 yards through the air, UNC was never able to sustain a running game without starter Romar Morris. As a team, it rushed for just 67 yards on 32 attempts.
ECU will continue its three-game road trip on Oct. 5 at Middle Tennessee State, while UNC will jump back into its ACC slate at Virginia Tech.