Saturday's matchup features two teams with struggling offenses and improved defenses. East Carolina's pass-heavy spread offense ranks 108th nationally (332.3 yards per game), while UNC's up-tempo balanced spread ranks 83rd (374.3). Neither offense has been productive in churning out first downs, which helps explain why both are near the bottom of the national rankings in time of possession (ECU 108th, UNC 118th).
While inexperience along the offensive line is the primary culprit to UNC's offensive woes, there is plenty of blame to go around. Running backs have missed reads, wide receivers have dropped balls and quarterback Bryn Renner's efficiency has fallen off from last season's level.
"I didn't anticipate this to happen, but I think everyone needs to stay positive," Renner said. "It's very early in the season. We have nine games left and they're very winnable games and they're also losable games, so we just need to play with confidence and keep working."
Renner (63-of-106 passing, 751 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) has delivered standout performances against ECU in his first two starts – 40-of-63 passing, 551 yards, 5 TD – but this Pirate defense is likely the best Ruffin McNeill has fielded during his four years in Greenville.
East Carolina (2-1) ranks 43rd nationally in total defense (351.0 ypg), including 10th in rushing defense (82.3 ypg). ECU's blitzing 3-4 defensive scheme could be problematic for a UNC ground game grinding out just 111.3 yards per game (104th).
McNeill told reporters earlier this week that playing Old Dominion with its up-tempo offense helped with exposing his players to Larry Fedora's preferred pace of play.
"You have to be careful with your substitutions," McNeill said. "You have to make sure you do them at the right time and that the players on the field understand when and where you can make them. My job is to manage the game, but our kids' and our coaches' jobs are to manage the subs. That's always big in a game like this, especially with what package you play. We're careful with that so we don't hurt our team with a penalty."
ECU quarterback Shane Carden (82-of-110 passing, 796 yards, 8 TD, 3 INT) directs an offense that expected more out of its running game despite a foundation in Mike Leach's Air Raid system. Senior tailback Vintavious Cooper rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2012 but has totaled 161 yards and a touchdown through three games this season.
"You've got to win up front so you can stop the run," UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. "In some respects, not different from Middle [Tennessee] in that they box count you and if you play the pass, then they're going to run the ball. If you play the run, then they're going to throw the ball. They have a lot more passing concepts than Middle and equally as many formations that you have to prepare for."
Koenning offered strong praise of junior wide receiver Justin Hardy, who has caught 26 balls for 258 yards and a touchdown.
"When you spread the field like they do with all the wide receivers, you cannot miss tackles," Fedora said. "You better make a tackle or it turns into a big play."
UNC topped ECU, 27-6, last season after leading 10-6 at halftime. Senior defensive end Kareem Martin believes that the Pirates are a much more complete team this time around.
"Usually people forget about ECU, but they're a talented team," Martin said. "They do well in Conference USA and we can't take them lightly on Saturday."
North Carolina jumped out 20-7 over Georgia Tech in the first half last Saturday before faltering over the final 35 minutes and allowing the Yellow Jackets to close the game on a 21-0 run. According to Martin, the Tar Heels want to copy that early success on Saturday.
"Our offense has to put points up when we get stops and get them behind, get them off what they want to do and let us start dictating what they do," Martin said. "I think if we can do that early, the game will go in our favor."
A win on Saturday would improve UNC's record at Kenan Stadium to 14-2 since 2011 and 8-1 during the Fedora era.