Can Bryn Renner and the North Carolina offense get it going against ECU? ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina hosts East Carolina on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. We’re not out of September yet but, already, you get the feeling that this is a must-win for the Tar Heels. A loss here would be bad. Very bad.
North Carolina vs. ECU
Kickoff: 12:30, Kenan Stadium
TV/Radio: ACC Network/WTKK 106.1-FM
PPG (UNC/ECU): 23.3/31
Allowed (UNC/ECU): 25/22
ABOUT ECU (2-1)
The Pirates earlier this month squandered a great chance to for a marquee victory against Virginia Tech, and instead suffered a 15-10 defeat. In that game, ECU allowed seven sacks and Shane Carden, the Pirates’ quarterback, threw three interceptions. Offense thus far has been ECU’s problem. Even with a dominant victory against Old Dominion to open the season, ECU ranks 108th nationally in total offense. The Pirates have been one of the worst running teams in the nation (ranked 118th nationally) and they’ve generated just 63.3 rushing yards per game. That’s surprising, given that Vintavious Cooper ran for 1,000 yards a season ago, and that ECU has some good experience up front on the offensive line. Defensively, ECU is giving up an average of 351 yards per game. The Pirates are playing a lot better under defensive coordinator Rick Smith, who’s in the first year of his second stint as an ECU assistant. The defense was an embarrassment at times last season, but it has been solid through the first three games this season. Defensively, the Pirates use a lot of three-man fronts. Derrell Johnson, the weak side outside linebacker, is a four-year starter and probably ECU’s best defensive player. Offensively, ECU likely needs a big game out of Justin Hardy, the junior receiver.
ABOUT NORTH CAROLINA (1-2)
It’s not necessarily surprising that the Tar Heels are 1-2. South Carolina is among the top 10 or 15 teams in the nation, and Georgia Tech, as always, is solid. But what is surprising is how average – or even below average – UNC has been offensively. The Tar Heels’ rushing offense ranks 104th nationally, and the coaching staff hasn’t shown a lot of trust in A.J. Blue and Romar Morris. The passing game has struggled, too, the offense as a whole has looked out of sorts. The good news, at least, is that Eric Ebron, the junior tight end, had one of the best games of his career last week at Georgia Tech. The bad news is that UNC did nothing offensively during the second half of that game. Defensively, UNC has shown some improvement from last year. The team is still giving up an average of 412 yards per game (which ranks 77th nationally), but defense hasn’t been this team’s problem. The Tar Heels travel next week to Virginia Tech, and so UNC needs to start getting in an offensive rhythm.
3 AND OUT
KEEP AN EYE ON: ECU receiver Justin Hardy. He caught 88 passes for 1,105 yards last season, but UNC held him to a season-low four catches for 25 yards. The Tar Heels’ success against Hardy last season was a big reason why ECU’s offense struggled. The more involved he is on Saturday, the better the Pirates’ chances will be.
MAGIC NUMBER: 20. The Pirates have lost 12 consecutive games when scoring 20 points or fewer. Given the state of the Tar Heels’ offense, and how well ECU’s defense has played in stretches early on, it probably wouldn’t be ideal for UNC to allow anything more than 20 points.
WHY UNC IS THE FAVORITE: Because, historically, UNC has dominated this series and is 12-2-1 against the Pirates. Because the Tar Heels haven’t lost in against ECU in Chapel Hill since 1975. Because this is a game UNC should win.
THREE KEYS FOR UNC
--Build some confidence early on offense. When last we saw the UNC offense, it was struggling through a debacle of a second half at Georgia Tech. The best way for the Tar Heels to forget about that would be with a fast start against the Pirates.
--Keep Hardy in check. The UNC defense made Hardy a priority last season, and it worked. He didn’t do much of anything, and the Pirates offense struggled as a result.
--Develop the running game. UNC’s offensive struggles can be traced to the sluggish running game. Blue and Morris are both averaging 4.7 yards per carry, yet the coaching staff has gone away from the running game in every game so far. The Tar Heels have to be able to run well for the rest of the offense to open up.
Eye patch and parrot
Peg leg, whiskey, typewriter
AND A PREDICTION
UNC 24, ECU 13
See you in the press box.