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Game Preview: UNC at East Carolina

Week 2 brings the definition of a must win in a legislatively-mandated game.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go again.

All of the optimism going into Berkley last week was quickly flushed out after a putrid first half against the Cal Bears. It’s the fourth year in a row that Coach Larry Fedora’s North Carolina Tar Heels have started the season with a loss, and this year an 0-2 start could sink any chance Fedora has to fully rebound.

Don’t worry, you’re only playing against a team that’s beaten you two straight in a game you wouldn't play unless the state legislature mandated it.

With that ray of sunshine, let’s break down what to expect as UNC and East Carolina take the field tomorrow down in Greenville.

UNC Offense vs. ECU Defense

You know the stats by now about just bad the Nathan Elliott led offense was last weekend. One first down in the first half, and the very next pass after that first down was an interception. Elliott would throw four total on the day, and it wasn’t until the second half that the offense was able to find any sort of rhythm. The concerns about the youth of the offensive line turned into full-blown panic as they didn't help Elliott get any time and created situations where a lot of his throws felt rushed. Additionally, the running backs just couldn’t get any traction. Even scripted plays seemed out of sync in the beginning, and it took until the second half for Elliott to take advantage of the fact that Cal was keyed in on the running backs, and tuck the ball and run.

The good news for the Tar Heels is that the ECU defense shouldn’t be much more of a challenge than Cal's. It’s a near cinch they will attempt to copy Cal’s game plan of stacking the box to prevent the run and force Elliott to throw. A&T was able to find some success against ECU with their dual-headed quarterback attack, the two combining to go 17-29 for 187 yards and three touchdowns. The Pirates didn’t pick one pass off, and only registered one sack. A&T’s lead back was able to average 3.8 yards a rush, but the Pirates were more disciplined than the Bears on option plays, restricting quarterbacks to 2.8 yards per carry. If Elliott can learn from his mistakes last week and play a smart, disciplined game, there is hope the team will look more like the second half team than the first half.

UNC Defense vs. ECU Offense

As much as a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad day that the offense had last weekend, the defense had perhaps one of the best showings in the Fedora Era. Four sacks, ten tackles for loss, and of Cal’s 24 points only 10 came from sustained Cal drives. Their only touchdown came late in the third quarter. The defense kept Carolina in the game and continued to give them chances when the offense finally started to move the ball. The only thing it lacked was a turnover, and the 4-0 advantage Cal had in that stat turned out to be the difference in the game.

The defense will be missing a big piece, though, as the captain who got half of those sacks, Malik Carney, starts his four-game suspension this weekend. The good news is the defense showed both depth and increased stamina, and they should hopefully be able to weather the loss of Carney. They are going to need it as they face a quarterback in Reid Herring who put up over 300 yards last weekend against the Aggies, though it took him 65 attempts (!) to get there. Herring also had a huge mistake that turned out to be the difference in the game, throwing a pick that led to a 100-yard touchdown the other way. The UNC secondary will be tested more against this attack than Cal’s, but the front line should be a tougher test for the ECU offense line that only surrendered one sack against A&T. With the accuracy issues and the step up in rush, chances are good the UNC defense will record its first interception sooner than they did last year.

Special Teams/Coaching/Intangibles

Any questions about Carolina’s special teams were answered last weekend as Freeman Jones acquitted himself well kicking the ball, and Hunter Lent’s leg got quite the workout punting seven times on the day. Cal never was able to get a strong run back on either kickoffs or punts. Meanwhile, Dazz Newsome took the mantle of punt returner eagerly, and showed off his skill with a 27 yard run to set up Carolina in Cal territory. ECU brings Trevon Brown to do returns, and he broke a couple of steady returns last weekend, so he’ll be a test for UNC. Overall, this area looks even.

The last time these two played, Carolina faced a different coach, and to say that head coach Scottie Montgomery hasn’t impressed in Greenville is putting it mildly. The move of ECU to fire the guy who had hung a total of 125 points in two games agains the Tar Heels still remains a head scratcher, and Montgomery hasn’t done anything to make fans forget. Meanwhile, Fedora, as unprepared as his teams had been to open the season, managed to get his squad to respond two out of three times, and the two wins were against teams of this caliber.

The one benefit ECU would have had, playing a home while Carolina was recovering from a west coast trip, was completely sucked away when weather forced the Pirates to play last Sunday. The game was hot and draining, and it seemed to wear on the team as the game went on, leading to the A&T win. The weather looks to be pretty similar this weekend, and could be a factor. That said, don’t discount that this game means something different for the Pirates. It’s one of the big in-state programs, the fan base will have a full day to...prepare...for a 3:30 game, and the stadium will be howling. The atmosphere will be completely different than the half-full stadium the Tar Heels played in last weekend, and an offense that was skittish last week could be awful at adjusting to those conditions.

To Win, UNC has to:

  • Get Nathan Elliott into a rhythm and manage the game
  • Have the offensive line look more like the second half effort
  • Have the defense ready for an air attack

Don’t be lulled into a sense of security with the loss the Pirates had against the Aggies last weekend. NC A&T is a good FCS team, and a loss like that sometimes has the ability to rally a team. This is definitely not the same ECU team that hung so many points on the Tar Heels the last time they played, however, and even in a tough environment, Carolina should prevail. If not, any doubt about the temperature of Fedora’s seat goes out the window.

Prediction: Carolina 28, ECU 7