East Carolina has had a rough go of it since Skip Holtz decamped for greener pastures three years ago. What success they did have could be laid at the feet of quarterback Dominique Davis, who led the team to 6-7 and 5-7 seasons under new coach Ruffin McNeill with one bowl appearance, a blowout loss to Maryland in the Military Bowl. Know with Davis gone, what sort of chance do the pirates have?
(And as an aside, does the name Ruffin McNeill sound like a pseudonym a not particularly bright grifter comes with on the spur of the moment? Is this guy going to leave town in the middle of the night with a suitcase full of bearer bonds, the only trace of his arrival a fake mustache and plans for a monorail? Because that would be awesome.)
The new guy under center for the moment is Shane Carden, a sophomore who took the job from the previous starter, Rio Johnson in the middle of a rout at the hands of South Carolina. Carden got a win over Southern Miss in his only start the following week, behind 171 yards through the air. He'll need that and more, because the running game has been particularly weak. The Pirates managed 70 yards against the Gamecocks and only 57, against the Golden Eagles. Their go-to guy is, as of the last game, Vintavious Cooper, with help from Reggie Bullock, who has the misfortune of not being the best college athlete in the state named Reggie Bullock. Hunter Furr, he of late heroics in one particular game as a UNC player, had three carries against USC but none since. One hopes the Tar Heel defense won't have the same lapses that have cost them the last two games, but even so, they'll have a bit more breathing room with the Pirates on the other side of the ball.
Defense is where ECU has made strides in recent years, as McNeill was originally a defensive coach (or an international jewel thief). The Pirates forced three third-quarter turnovers last week and got touchdowns out of all three. The defense returns seven starters but lost some of the more impressive members of last year's squad; this is a young team, and UNC should be able to cause some trouble if they keep a hold of the ball. The Tar Heels' turnovers have been a little troubling, but I'm not overly concerned. If things start to go bad, they can snowball quickly.
Of course, the real question is whether Gio Bernard will see action, and there's been no word since the last post on the subject. A.J. Blue and Romar Morris have done great work in his absence — Morris won ACC Receiver of the Week and blocked a punt for crying out loud — but the Heels have really missed Bernard on returns. Establishing a good running game will allow Bryn Renner to go to town through the air; South Carolina's backup QB had 330 of the team's 397 yards against ECU two weeks ago.
East Carolina hasn't beaten an ACC team since Butch Davis's first year on the Kenan sidelines. Don't look for that trend to change this season, or any time in the near future. UNC should win handily and begin the task of finishing a painful September above .500.