The Tar Heels are favored by 17 points in the 15th meeting between these schools separated by roughly 100 miles. Since a 20-year break in this rivalry lasting from 1981-2001, UNC (1-2) and ECU (2-1) have played six times over the past 11 years and Saturday will mark the fifth time in the past six years.
First-year UNC head coach Larry Fedora will get his first taste of the heated rivalry, although he understands the importance of such contests for Conference USA members against in-state BCS-level conference schools. Despite attempts, Southern Miss was unable to schedule games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State during Fedora’s four-year run in Hattiesburg.
“I think (the rivalry) is good for the state," Fedora said. "I think the rivalries that you have within the state and the people who hate each other, it gives them bragging rights at the office and something to talk about all year. I think that's what college football is all about… I consider anybody in the state that we play (as) somebody that we have to beat.”
While the Pirates represent the next opponent on the schedule, North Carolina’s worst enemy, and therefore its primary focus during practice this week, has been poor execution and a lack of intensity on the football field.
That combination allowed Louisville to build a 29-0 first-half lead over UNC last Saturday, although Fedora seems to be placing more significance on the emotional aspects.
“It’s still about just playing with energy,” Fedora said. “It’s playing with energy, intensity, excitement, enthusiasm, all of those things. When you do that, you’re going to be fine because the schemes are proven.”
The execution angle has been problematic as well. UNC has missed 44 defensive assignments in its last two games, while the offense has committed six turnovers and failed to score a touchdown seven times in 17 red zone trips.
“[East Carolina] going to make you plays without mistakes and, to be honest with you, that’s been our issue the last few weeks,” offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. “We’re still making too many mistakes so I think we’re our own worst enemy. If we play mistake free then I think we got a chance to win any game against any opponent. If we make mistakes it doesn’t matter who we play, we keep everybody in the game.
Bryn Renner (63-of-101, 870 yards, 9 TD, 3 INT) tied the school record with five touchdown passes against Louisville, settling down a disjointed first half. Red-shirt freshman running back Romar Morris flourished in place of the injured Gio Bernard – whose status remains up in the air for Saturday – and earned ACC Receiver of the Week honors after catching five passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
North Carolina ranks 19th in scoring offense (41.0 ppg) and 21st in passing offense (305.0 ypg) nationally, while ECU is 111th in passing defense (310.0 ypg) and 85th in total defense (423.67 ypg).
Fedora has not been alone in emphasizing energy and execution. East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill is hoping his team will build on the positives of last week’s win at Southern Miss instead of regressing to the mistake-plagued 48-10 debacle at South Carolina on Sept. 8.
“As always, execution is always important,” McNeill said. “Everyone doing their particular assignment job on the same play and competing as one 11-man unit is always an area that is important. I would like to see the team start fast and build on the strong second half against Southern Miss. The way you finish a play, series and a half is always a key.”
McNeill has settled on sophomore Shane Carden (25-of-45, 311 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) as his starter at quarterback to spark his offense after a solid showing against Southern Miss. After two consecutive seasons ranked in the top-20 nationally in passing offense, the Pirates are currently 54th (248.67 ypg).
While red-shirt sophomore Justin Hardy, who has caught 19 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns, provides a legitimate receiving option, ECU’s inexperience at quarterback has brought about a need for improved rushing production.
Michael Dobson (96 yards) and Vintavious Cooper (85) are anchoring the tailback position, but struggles remain – ECU ranks 113th in rushing offense (91.67). The Tar Heels, on the other hand, rank 23rd in rushing defense (96.3 ypg).
"We want to be a balanced offense," McNeill said. "You have to be able to throw the football. Three yards and a cloud of dust does not work in this day and time so we want to be a balanced offense. We want to be able to move the ball to keep the defense honest and keep the linebackers honest and everyone involved. So we have to be able to run the football.”
The rivalry factor, of course, adds an entirely different element to the matchup at Kenan Stadium.
“They’re going to come in here into our house and they’re going to want to take something from us,” Fedora said. “That means you step up and show what you’re made of.”
A win on Saturday would mark North Carolina’s ninth in 11 games against nonconference opponents.
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