The No. 25 Tar Heels will strive to improve to 3-0 for the first time under head coach Larry Fedora when they travel down to Greenville to take on the battle-tested ECU Pirates, fresh off a 28-21 upset victory at then-No.17 Virginia Tech.
UNC leads the all-time series 12-3-1, but the Pirates smashed the Tar Heels 55-31 a season ago in Chapel Hill. Saturday’s game will mark only the fourth meeting at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium between the schools.
The 2014 encounter promises to be hotly-contested, with the Pirates wanting to prove last year was no fluke and the Tar Heels hoping to exact some revenge on their in-state rivals.
Free from the shackles of the week one rotation with redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky, and after taking nearly all the snaps in week two against San Diego State, junior signal caller Marquise Williams appears to have settled down and picked up where he left off in 2013. He’s clearly a leader who thrives under scoreboard pressure. And with the capable shiftiness of Ryan Switzer, the return of injured receiver T.J. Thorpe from injury and the emergence of playmaker Mack Hollins, Williams will have a plethora of dynamic options with which to work with. One of the interesting storylines for the Tar Heels will be if somebody emerges as the clear go-to running back in the backfield. T.J. Logan, Elijah Hood and Romar Morris have all shown flashes this season, but you get the feeling one of them should step up and create some separation in the coming weeks. The bottom line: UNC’s offensive attack, especially with the extra week to prepare, is likely to be clicking on all cylinders Saturday afternoon.
As for ECU, it all starts with veteran quarterback Shane Carden. The senior signal caller tops the Pirate history books in career pass completions and touchdowns with 63. Carden can dissect a defense like few can across the nation, ranking among the top five active career leaders in completion percentage, completions per game, passing yards and touchdowns. In short, he’s an absolute handful. Carden’s favorite target is fellow senior Justin Hardy. The duo has connected for 20 touchdowns during their Pirate careers, which leads the nation for all active QB-WR tandems. In fact, Hardy has caught at least two passes in every career game he’s played, a run that sits at 39-straight games. Don’t expect this streak to end against UNC.
Carolina’s defense could be described in two words thus far: porous and opportunistic. The Tar Heels are porous in that they give up plenty of yards, quickly. The young Carolina secondary is especially vulnerable to a poised, accurate quarterback. Uh oh. ECU’s Carden would fall into that category. What’s more concerning for the coaching staff, however, are the missed tackles. UNC head coach Larry Fedora says the bye week gave the team time to get those mistakes corrected. We’ll see soon enough.
Despite the obvious struggles, the UNC defense’s ability to create turnovers has been a welcome improvement for the Tar Heels this season. The opportunistic nature of the unit is something defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will be pleased about as he had been stressing the big play ability all offseason to his players. It seems it has paid off with UNC coming up with numerous fumble recoveries and snagging timely interceptions, especially in the dramatic win against SDSU.
The Pirates feature a couple outstanding players on the defense. Linebacker Maurice Falls has been placed on the 2014 Watch List for the Butkus Award, handed out to the nation’s premier linebacker. Meanwhile, ECU added an important piece to its roster last week in the win at VT in the form of defensive tackle Terry Williams. Williams has recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him for the first two games of the season. He figures to cause havoc for the young UNC offensive linemen. The strength of the defense lies against the run. The Pirates have limited two of their first three opponents to under 100 yards as a team. Against the pass, the Pirates are a bit of a mixed bag, but have managed to strike fear in opposing quarterbacks with one of the top interception units in the country. But there’s a lot of inexperience in the secondary, too. If Carolina plays an aggressive game and challenges the Pirate safeties with the deep ball, ECU could be exposed.
Both UNC and ECU are sound in the special teams department. For the Pirates, Hardy is a huge punt return threat, while the Tar Heels can match them with their own spark plug in Switzer. Switzer established an ACC record with five punt return touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, will no doubt be fired up to prove his Tar Heels still have the upper hand. As far as home field advantage, that goes to the Pirates. 50,000-strong will be yelling their lungs out in Greenville on Saturday, hungry for another big win. But the Tar Heels are ravenous for another reason. They want revenge badly. Getting embarrassed last season in front of their home fans didn’t sit well. UNC certainly has motivation.
This contest should be an exciting, high-flying thriller for Pirate Nation. The first quarter will likely tell the tale in this one. If the Tar Heels can get off to a strong start (something they haven’t been able to do a lot of lately), the raucous Pirate crowd will be held at bay. Carden and Williams, though, should put on an attractive offensive display, having their way with the respective defenses. I expect UNC to get off to a better start this week, continue to produce big takeaways and relentlessly attack the Pirate secondary downfield. The Tar Heels will grit out another tough victory, this time in enemy territory.
UNC 42, ECU 35
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