Our neighbors in Greenville have fallen on hard times, perhaps of their own doing. After a disappointing 5-7 finish in 2015, they made the surprise move of firing universally-beloved Ruffin McNeill, and then bumbling through a coaching search that ended with Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery.
To say the Montgomery experience has been a disaster may be sugar coating it— the Pirates have finished 3-9 in each of his two years, falling from 76th (per S&P+) in McNeill’s swan song to 100th and 123rd in the Montgomery era.
Despite their recent failure, the Pirates are not far removed from being a viable ACC killer. They won back-to-back games against Virginia Tech in 2014-15, hold a 3-game winning streak against N.C. State (including an inexplicable 2016 win before we knew how bad they were)...and a two-game winning streak against North Carolina.
There are moments that give a Carolina football fan PTSD littered throughout the program’s history...and there are moments that make the endeavor of being a fan feel hopeless, empty, and existentially exhausting. Chief among them for this blogger are the 2013-14 drubbings the Heels took at the hands of the McNeill/Lincoln Riley Pirates. 55-31 in Chapel Hill in 2013 was awful, but 70-41 in 2014 was downright soul-crushing. Time heals all wounds, but Pirates fans have not let those massacres go unnoticed.
The Sept. 8 showdown in Greenville will be a chance for Larry Fedora to exact some measure of revenge— he’s just 3-4 against the Pirates in his two head coaching stops-- and he needs to do just that.
Like I said, the Pirates were BAAAD last year. They were outscored 154-51 in their first three games, edged UConn (S&P+ rank: 119) 41-38, then got outscored 158-64 in their next three.
At 1-6, they got healthy in a nonconference home win against an equally hapless BYU (S&P+ rank: 100) and turned a corner, relatively speaking, in November.
They only lost by 25 to Houston and 7 to Tulane in back-to-back road trips, and put together their best performance of the season against Cincinnati (S&P+ rank: 102) in a 48-20 win that I’m sure was cathartic. Then...they lost to Memphis 70-13.
Their offense was average nationally, led by a 54th-ranked passing offense. Both Gardner Minshew and Thomas Sirk have moved on, but probable starter Reid Herring is perfect in his career— 1/1 for 20 yards and a touchdown.
Their defense...? Dead. Freaking. Last. 130/130. It was no fluke— there is literally one measure on their stat profile that ranked better than 100th. 49% of rushes went for at least 5 yards. They were dead last or second-to-last in every passing measure charting efficiency and explosiveness. They were dead last in overall performance in the 1st and 2nd quarters, and only improved to 128th and 122nd in the 3rd and 4th when most of their games were long decided.
To put it one more way: their offense averaged 5.4 yards per play...and their defense allowed 7.7. This was a team put at almost a quarter of a first down disadvantage every time the ball was snapped.
I detailed the outings in 2013 and 2014, and unfortunately will never forget the feeling watching those two outings. Overall, though? The Heels hold a nice 11-4-1 record against the boys from Greenville. Fedora did get a win in his first year, a 27-6 triumph. Since the legislated mandate in the late 90’s that these teams play, the Heels held a 5-1 record pre-Fedora, with the lone blemish coming in Butch Davis’ first year.
The 2007 Davis loss was a road game, with a young team coming off a 3-9 campaign, in the second game of the season. Not to draw parallels for drawing parallels’ sake, but that’s the scariest thing about this matchup.
UNC Offense vs. ECU Defense
Like I said earlier, the Pirates’ 2017 defense was bad. They brought in David Blackwell, an alumnus, from Jacksonville State to run the defense, but lose their top two tacklers and the only pass-rusher to generate more than 1.5 sacks. With a laughable 39 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 7 interceptions, and 4 fumble recoveries, they have nowhere to go but up.
This game will be informative only in hopefully gaining clarity on the quarterback situation-- or determining if Blackwell is a miracle-worker. His resume is impressive, but defense is primarily about talent, which this unit will lack.
According to Athlon, only 3 primary starters from last year’s unit return. Their early depth chart boasts 4 sophomores and one senior on the starting unit, and three seniors on the second team. Sophomore Aaron Ramseur (#51) acquitted himself nicely at linebacker in the second half of the season, and is their second-leading returning tackler. He’s bested only by nickelback Devon Sutton, who was second on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss from basically a M.J. Stewart role.
There’s not much to say here. This game is all about UNC’s offense establishing an identity, hopefully establishing some kind of rhythm for Chazz Surratt or Nathan Elliott (or one of the freshmen?), and hopefully running up the score and padding some stats before UCF and the ACC schedule come calling.
UNC Defense vs. ECU Offense
The Pirates, as with the McNeill/Riley vintage, are an Air Raid, pass-happy offense. Herring’s touchdown pass represents all of the collegiate experience on the roster, and Pirates fans will be clamoring for hometown hero Holton Ahlers— a true freshman who I’d expect will see snaps on 9/8. Whomever is taking snaps, they won’t have much help from the running game— leading rusher Hussein Howe returns after posting 416 yards at a 4.3 yards-per-carry clip. The Pirates were dead last in the AAC in rushing (shocker).
They do have receivers, or at least one, though. Trevon Brown (#88) posted 17.8 yards per reception, which is an absurd number for a guy who also led the team in receptions with 60. Receivers 2-4 have graduated, but they have three more guys (Howe, Deondre Farrier, and Tahj Deans) who caught at least 16 passes in 2017. Deans is the intriguing guy, for me, of that group. He played in the opener, got hurt, came back for sporadic playing time, but got a chance late in the season. The Southern Nash alumnus (Julius Peppers what up) caught 10 balls for 115 yards and a score in the last two games of the season, and appears to be a nice #2 option.
The offensive line returns three starters, including big left tackle D’Ante Smith. The depth chart, again, only boasts one senior (RT Garrett McGhin), and we’ve witnessed firsthand (read: 2017 after injuries) the disaster a young offensive line can be.
With no returning passers of note, one is inclined to throw the Pirates’ 16 interceptions out the window— playing from behind increases opportunities to throw picks. The Heels should have the advantage up-front with their veteran defensive line, and some pressure from the front four would go a long way to forcing some mistakes. We’ll learn a lot based on who draws the Brown assignment-- unlike Cal, the Pirates have only one established weapon.
This ECU team has to be better than the product they put on the field in 2017, they really can’t get any worse. If the Pirates improve by leaps and bounds, that will likely be reflected later in the season as their young playmakers and new defense get acclimated— not in week two.
The Heels need to go win this game by 30 points. If they’ve banked a win with Cal and get this one in blowout fashion, the prognosis for 2018 improves dramatically.
Carolina 59, ECU 24