Last season, the Heels got off to a rocky 1-5 start before turning it around and going on a 5 game winning streak. The low point of that poor opening was a blowout home loss to these Pirates. In that win the Pirates gained more than 600 yards against the Heels and never trailed. To beat ECU in Greenville, UNC will have to stop an offense that fired on all cylinders against them last season.
The key for the Heels will be to stop ECU quarterback Shane Carden. Last season Carden beat the Heels basically by himself, recording 6 total touchdowns, three each through the air and on the ground. The Pirates are a relatively one dimensional offense. They threw the ball more than they ran last season and despite having a 1000-yard rusher in Vintavious Cooper. This season, Cooper has moved on which puts more of the offensive focus on Carden who is simply too good a passer for them to not utilize those skills.
Last year against the Heels, ECU used Cooper to tear up the Heels up for 186 yards on 35 carries for an average of 5.3 yards per carry. The key stat there is the number of carries. The Pirates led the entire way in Chapel Hill last year and Carolina never brought it closer than an 11 point gap. Cooper had no touchdowns against the Heels, but the Heels had been forced to respect Carden's arm and this opened up running lanes for Cooper. Cooper's longest carry of the game went for 28 yards, not a particularly explosive or stat-inflating number; the Pirates merely called his number and he ran forward for 5 or 6 yards each time against prevent defenses. Cooper's success was a result of ECU trying to control the game clock not because of amazing runs for bunches of yards at a time. This season, ECU enters the game with just 74 rushing attempts in three games putting the Pirates 125th out of 128 teams in attempts per game. Carden has 21 of those attempts which leads the team.
Carolina simply can not afford to go down early in the game again. If the Pirates successfully force the Heels into those same prevent defenses then the Pirates could go to the running game and rack up yardage on the ground. Even then, the Heels must be able to stop Carden or like last season, it could be a long afternoon. By most any metric last season, Shane Carden was one of the top ten passers in the country. Carden threw for more total yards and had a higher completion percentage than Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles. Carden was third in the nation in completion percentage at 70.5% and seventh in total passing yards at 4139. In fact no one in the country threw for more yards with a higher completion percentage than Shane Carden did. All of this is to say that Carden is really good and he will demand respect from the Tar Heels. So far this season, Carden's numbers have cooled off slightly from last season but he still represents a huge threat UNC must contend with in order to win.
This will be the most interesting battle of the game, the Carolina secondary against Carden's skill. A telling stat from his performance last season was that Carden only averaged 7.5 yards per attempt. During the early part of 2014, Carden is at 7.9 yards per attempt. The Pirates are more than content to dink and dunk their way down the field for scores. The Heels will probably have to stay in a nickel defense most of the game to counter the ECU spread offense, in that nickel the Heels will have to be able to generate a pass rush and prevent Hardin from getting easy throws. That rush will need to come from the defensive line and maybe one or two linebackers, but not more than that because of the mandate that defensive backs and another linebacker or two cover receivers in the open field. If the passing game can be contained like this then the run should not be hard to stop, against all competition the Pirates averaged less than four yards per carry. If the Heels can stay away from prevent defenses the run should not be difficult to stop. That being said, ECU has solid receivers in Cam Worthy, Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones which each already over 200 yards receiving in just three games.
Last season, the Pirates were a middling team on defense that structured their play last season on stout run prevention, creating interceptions and limiting the deep ball. They held opponents to only 3.26 yards per carry and 6.4 yards per passing attempt. They also forced 18 interceptions including one against Bryn Renner in Chapel Hill. This is a team whose defense was built to play with a lead, relying on opponents to throw against them. That strategy widely worked, opponents threw on ECU nearly 42.5 times per contest which was more than 56% of total plays run against the Pirate defense. The strength of that pass defense was its rush. The Pirates broke up 67 passes at the line of scrimmage, second in the nation, while also collecting 38 sacks (three against the Heels), tied for thirteenth in the country.
Much of that has held true through three games this season. ECU has an effective pass rush and great size on the defensive line. ECU sacked Virginia Tech three times with four pass break-ups and eight quarterback hurries on the way to holding the Hokies to just 389 yards. ECU also had two interceptions. By all accounts the ECU defense looks improved over last season however two of those games came against teams presently ranked 58th(South Carolina) and 84(Virginia Tech) in total offense. UNC's offense is presently 71st in yards per game but certainly has to potential to put up big yardage making this a real test for the Pirates. And unlike last season with the pocket passing Renner, Marquise Williams is a dual threat which changes ECU's approach to defending the Tar Heels.
This game will be a tall task, ECU is coming off a big win at Virginia Tech and the environment will be one of the four most hostile environments the Heels will face all year including when they travel to Clemson, Notre Dame and Duke.The key to winning this game will be to keep the Pirate offense off the field. The Heels should run screens and short slanting routes to make the Pirate linebackers come off the line of scrimmage and force them into coverage. Once that's done running lanes will open which will eat up the clock, keeping Carden off the feild. When the Pirate offense is on the field Carolina must play good pass defense while in nickel sets. They can not be forced to play prevent defenses that will let the Pirates dominate on the ground like they did last year.