Now in his third season as the head coach of his alma mater, Ruffin McNeill is attempting to establish East Carolina as a championship contender in Conference USA once again. Despite an appearance in the Military Bowl in 2010 it has been a slow climb for McNeill and the Pirates. Including the 2-1 start to the 2012 campaign, McNeill is just 13-15 during his time in Greenville, N.C.
To be fair, the lack of quality personnel on the defensive side of the ball has severely hampered the Pirates since McNeills arrival. In 2010, East Carolina ranked 120th, last in FBS, in total defense (478.77 ypg). Last fall the unit improved to 56th (376.33 ypg), but the defense has taken a step back this season and currently ranks 85th (423.67 ypg) in FBS.
Before taking the head job at East Carolina, McNeill was the defense coordinator at Texas Tech. While the defense has yet to live up to expectations, the Pirate offense has thrived under McNeill, who brought with him the aerial spread offense associated with former Texas Tech and current Washington State head coach Mike Leach. Under quarterback Dominique Davis, East Carolina ranked eighth (318.69 ypg) and 20th (286.08 ypg) in passing offense the past two seasons.
ECU currently ranks 100th nationally in total offense (340.33 ypg), 54th in passing offense (248.67), 113th in rushing offense (91.67) and 69th in scoring offense (23.0).
The Pirates have yet to find their groove on offense in 2012, rotating between junior Rio Johnson (46-of-72, 435 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT) and sophomore Shane Carden (25-of-45, 311 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) at quarterback. Carden will get the start against North Carolina on Saturday after leading the Pirates to a victory over Southern Mississippi last weekend.
Following a disappointing season last year (5-7, 5-4 C-USA), in which the Pirates failed to reach a bowl game for the first time in six seasons, East Carolina is off to a solid start this season with victories over FCS powerhouse Appalachian State in addition to the road win over the Golden Eagles. The lone loss came against No. 9 South Carolina.
"North Carolina returns four offensive linemen this year. They were a big unit last year and they are just as big this year. South Carolina had a big line, but the North Carolina line is even bigger. They will have the size advantage so we need to make sure our technique is strong to counteract them… Offensively they have explosive players and a good quarterback. We need to do a great job of blending our coverages and disguising our movements." – McNeill
"I think the kids finally understand exactly what [McNeill's] doing. We have some knowledge, because we've played them for the last couple of years and you see a big improvement each year with Ruffin's team. I think he's finally getting some guys over there defensively that feels comfortable with what he's trying to do. 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." – North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora
Matchups to Watch
East Carolina's Justin Hardy vs. UNC's Secondary
In the past two weeks, North Carolina struggled defending the pass. In particular, smaller slot receivers burned the Tar Heel defense. Against Wake Forest, 5-foot-11 Michael Campanaro hauled in a career high 13 receptions for 164 yards. Last Saturday in Louisville, 5-foot-11 Cardinals wide receiver Charles Gaines went for 78 yards and a touchdown on five catches.
The primary receiver for East Carolina is 6-foot red-shirt sophomore Justin Hardy. Used primarily as the inside receiver in the Pirates pass-first spread offense, Hardy (64 rec, 648 yards, 6 TD) broke out last fall earning Conference-USA All-Freshman Team honors.
Despite the loss of Davis at the quarterback position and Johnson and Carden both seeing time at the position, Hardy has not skipped a beat. In just three games, the Vanceboro, N.C. native has hauled in 19 receptions for 241 yards and three touchdowns.
Last fall, North Carolina surrendered 417 passing yards to East Carolina in a 35-20 win. Hardy, along with departed wide receiver Lance Lewis, caught 10 passes each. Hardy managed just 73 yards compared to Lewis's 166, but he was able to get open against the Tar Heel secondary nonetheless. North Carolina starting safety Sam Smiley may be limited due to injury on Saturday, making an already shaky secondary a little thinner.
Against Wake Forest and Louisville it was an all-to-common sight to see a North Carolina defender, whether it be the Ram, the Bandit, a linebacker or a secondary member trailing the slot receiver as he came across the middle of the field wide open. Hardy presents the same type of problem for the North Carolina defense.
East Carolina's Secondary vs. UNC's Bryn Renner
If ever there was a game when Bryn Renner should feel comfortable throwing the football, Saturday against East Carolina should be that game. The Pirates currently rank 110th in FBS in defending the pass (310.0 ypg) despite holding Southern Mississippi to only 145 passing yards last week.
Appalachian State signal caller Jamal Jackson dissected the Pirates secondary to a tune of 300 yards in the opening game of the season. The following week, South Carolina backup quarterback Dylan Thompson bested the career high of normal starter Connor Shaw by 19 yards in throwing for 330 yards and three scores.
To make matters worse, the Pirate secondary is depleted with injuries. Senior cornerback Jacobi Jenkins is unavailable Saturday while fellow senior cornerbacks Kristopher Sykes and Leonard Paulk are banged up as well. Their status for the game against North Carolina is uncertain at this time.
Ironically, wide receiver is the position where North Carolina has suffered its fair share of injuries as well. Sophomore's Reggie Wilkins and T.J Thorpe are likely out for an extended amount of time while senior Jhay Boyd was limited in practice today and freshman Quinshad Davis wore an orange jersey typically reserved for injured players. Tight end Jack Tabb also did not participate in practice today.
Even with both sides reeling from injuries, the differentiating factor is Renner (63-of-101, 870 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT). As long as he avoids the big mistakes and big hits that contributed to the offenses inconsistency through the first three games, Renner should be able to pick apart the Pirates secondary. He still has a couple of healthy and proven targets to look for in senior wide receiver Erik Highsmith and sophomore tight end Eric Ebron. ACC Receiver of the Week, redshirt freshman running back Romar Morris, also provides a dynamic safety valve for Renner when things are not open down the field.