Head coach Ruffin McNeill's fourth season in Greenville looks promising after compiling a 2-1 record with wins over Old Dominion and Florida Atlantic. The aerial attack stalled against Virginia Tech in a close 15-10 losing effort last week. The Pirates were pinned as the favorite to win the East Division in Conference USA after posting a 7-1 record in the league a season ago. The first winning season during the McNeil era occurred in 2012 with an 8-5 overall mark that ended with a loss in the New Orleans Bowl. The usual suspects have produced for the Pirates so far this season with junior quarterback Shane Carden and his go-to receiver on the outside - Justin Hardy (258 yds, 26 rec, one touchdown) - teaming up in the passing game. The ground game is fueled by senior running back Vintavious Cooper (161 yds, one touchdown), who has struggled to find his groove early after rushing for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns last fall. Defensively, end Lee Pegues has impressed leading the Pirates with three sacks on the season.
"When you play as many instate opponents as you do they're all very important and they're all important to the state of North Carolina. Just the regional rivalries that we talk about and how important that is to the state, our fans, their fans and everybody involved. It's always important and always means a little bit more." – UNC head coach Larry Fedora
"Larry and I have known each other for a long time from the Oklahoma State days in the Big 12 and his Southern Miss days. Larry has always been a really good football coach – a go-getter – and always an offensive-minded coach. His offense has not changed. They are a "NASCAR", fast-paced [offense]. Bryn [Renner] is a really good general and orchestrator of his offense. He does a good job of understanding what Larry wants and how to distribute the football. He's a really good leader for their offense." – McNeill
"All games are big to a coach. I understand the in-state rivalry. I'm looking forward to the competition, the contest and the challenge, but I'm looking forward to doing what we need to do to make sure we have success on Saturday." – McNeill
UNC's Rushing Attack vs. ECU's Run Defense
Entering the 2013 season, the question mark for the progression of the ECU program surrounded McNeil's specialty, which is the defensive side of the ball. The Pirates ranked 87th nationally in total defense in 2012 while allowing 31.6 points per game. The difference in the product displayed thus far has been profound. Through three games, East Carolina ranks 43rd in total defense, allowing 351 yards per game. The strong suit for the Pirates has been their run defense (82.3 ypg), which ranks 10th in the nation. Red zone resilience has been another staple for the Pirates (63.6 percent; 13th).
"Ruffin got them playing hard now," Fedora said. "They're flying around. They really are. I know he's a defensive guy and I think he's got those guys juiced up pretty good…
"Those guys are going to come in here and they are going to play extremely hard on defense. They're flying around. You've got a lot of guys getting multiple hats to the ball. They've created some takeaways. I think they're playing really well."
North Carolina's struggles in the ground game have been well documented with each passing game. The Tar Heels rank 104th nationally in both rushing offense (111.3 ypg) and yards per carry (3.3).
ECU QB Shane Carden vs. UNC's Secondary
Carden entered the season with more of a leadership role after impressing as a sophomore. He started out emphatically by tossing five touchdown passes against Old Dominion in the season opener. He followed that performance with a solid two touchdown outing against Florida Atlantic to lead his team to a 2-0 start. Carden struggled against the Hokies, however, throwing three interceptions against just one touchdown. Although his production may have slipped a week ago, Fedora still sees the Houston, TX slinger as a major threat against the Tar Heels.
"He moves the ball around all over the field," Fedora said. "I think he does a great job of distributing it where it needs to go. He's got some weapons out there at wide receiver and I think he's very comfortable in what they're doing. Lincoln [Riley's] got him coached up well and they're spreading it around really well."
UNC's secondary is more experienced and has more bodies than a season ago and it's showed. The Tar Heels rank 62nd in passing efficiency defense (125.7) and 27th in passing yards allowed (175.0).