I'll admit, I've mellowed towards East Carolina in recent years. I was as annoyed as anyone when the Pirates were legislatively mandated to play first N.C. State in 1996 and then UNC in 2001. East Carolina fans appeared to have a rather unreasonable hatred towards the more prominent state schools for having the temerity to be... more prominent, I guess. And make no mistake about it, Pirate fans can be nut balls. Witness the death threats DTH columnist Johnathan Jones received after writing this rather tame article.
But I personally have been away from the Old North State for some time, so don't encounter many East Carolina alumni. And this Labor Day, I was in Charleston, WV, for the WVU-Marshall game. The Coal Bowl is also demanded by the state government, and played by a BCS conference team that sees no upside in playing an in-state school from Conference USA. They win, and no one thinks anything of it. They lose, it's a disaster. And their opponent is always more amped for the game than they are.
But as an outsider, I enjoyed seeing the state go a little nuts for the game. And I realized that it's only a no-win situation for the bigger team if they let it. UNC doesn't have to take the same perspective towards the game that N.C. State does. Because on a fan basis, East Carolina is to N.C. State what N.C. State is to UNC; a crowd with a huge chip on their shoulder that the bigger school will never quite bestow the rivalry stays on them that they so desperately crave.
But UNC has the luxury of treating the game more like Michigan treats Central Michigan. Or Eastern Michigan. Or Western Michigan. (How many directional schools does that state have?). True, the Wolverines have never lost to those teams, and their opinion might change should they ever find the success Appalachian State has. But UNC only lost to the Pirates once since the series was revived, and has of late easily handled the folks from Greenville. So I have no problem with the series being extended another two games. I wouldn't want this game elevated to an every year, rivalry type game, but periodically is fine, especially since the players seem to have the right attitude towards the game.
So, about the Pirates themselves. Their offense is pretty heavily weighted towards the pass. Not as much as in years past, but if Carolina can shut down the run (they should) and turn the Pirates one-dimensional, they should have an easier time of things. Although the secondary will have to be a little sharer than they were in weeks past.
The ECU defense gave up 56 points to South Carolina, but held Virginia Tech to 17. That second game is a bit of an aberration, as the Hokies had two missed field goals and a pair of fumbles – they still gained 332 yards. The Pirates are particularly susceptible to the run, so look for Giovani Bernard and Ryan Houston to get a lot of carries, as UNC's offense tends towards the conservative, especially in a game like this.
East Carolina has improved over the last few seasons, and have a strange talent for playing Virginia Tech close. But this is UNC's game to lose, and if the offense can settle into a rhythm and the secondary doesn't self-destruct, they should win comfortably. If UNC is going to show the country that they're a better team than the squad that fell to Georgia Tech, this is the week to start.