North Carolina at East Carolina, 3:30 PM, ESPNU
So what traditionally is a game UNC probably should win, especially given the built-in recruiting advantages, has turned into a game UNC may very well lose because it appears the Pirates have the better team.
Welcome to 2014.
Much of the talk leading up to this game has centered on the game between these two teams last season. ECU rolled into Chapel Hill and left with a 55-31 win. The Tar Heels fell asleep at the switch early in the game falling behind 21-3. Since the UNC defense had no real designs on stopping the ECU offense that day, being down 18 points early meant the game was essentially over. The Tar Heel offense eventually showed up scoring 28 points over the remainder of the game but the damage was largely done. Without stops on the defensive side, UNC was basically caught trading points with ECU and ultimately lost by 24.
Heading into this game, that simply cannot happen. Whatever else may transpire, UNC needs a sharp offense out of the gate and some kind of discernible resistance on the part of the defense. In two games this season, UNC has been prone to slow offensive starts and being gashed with rushing and passing attacks while on defense. If those trends hold in this game, it will be a long afternoon in Greenville. UNC's best hope is to match offensive firepower and if the defense can't stop ECU from moving the chains, then forcing turnovers will be paramount.
By no means will it be easy. ECU QB Shane Carden is a legit passing threat and the caliber of the Pirate receiving corps is very high. ECU won't lack for productivity in the passing game. The question for UNC is whether it can be contained to some extent by forcing turnovers or getting critical stops on 3rd or 4th down. UNC also has to be aware of the Pirate rushing attack which blistered the Tar Heels last season. ECU has 74 rushing attempts in three games for 415 yards. Half of those yards came against NC Central in the opener. ECU was effective rushing the football against South Carolina to the tune of 6.29 yards per attempt. Last week versus Virginia Tech, the ground game was stifled. ECU, while preferring to put the ball in the air, will likely run the ball enough to keep UNC's defense honest and see if it is as effective in 2014 as it was 2013.
While UNC has made a living on forcing turnovers, getting stops the traditional way and forcing punts is key in getting Ryan Switzer a chance to return kicks. Switzer has yet to run a punt back for a touchdown this season but is a threat to do so every time he touches the ball. That can only happen if the defense can force punts. To say Switzer is due is probably an understatement and this game would be a great time to break off his first scoring return of 2014.
On the offensive side, UNC needs a big day, especially if the defense is only going to be able to do so much to keep ECU in check. The first two games have seen the Tar Heels show flashes of offensive firepower but nothing consistent. The first drives of both games, which likely were based on a scripted set of plays, were effective. As the game wore on the offense sputtered and prone to being stopped in short order. The latter portions of the second half against San Diego State were more in line with what this offense is capable of doing. There was a long touchdown strike to Mack Hollins. QB Marquise Williams used his legs to create rushing yardarge and keep plays alive to find receivers. Ryan Switzer had a some solid receptions and there was some production from the running backs, when UNC chose to use them. All of those pieces need to work in tandem across the entirety of the game to get the offense moving.
UNC's best hope in this game might be simply keeping pace and then bank on a couple of turnovers or perhaps a strong stand or two by the defense. There shouldn't be any question about motivation. UNC returns most of the roster who watched ECU roll roughshod over the Tar Heels in Kenan Stadium last season. At the same time, there needs to be a positive channeling of the emotion a game if this nature sparks.
This is a tough chore, the first of many tough chores UNC will face over the remainder of the season. It also represents an opportunity to beat a good football team on the road and build some confidence for games that matter in the ACC pecking order.
UNC 41 ECU 38