North Carolina on Saturday returns to Kenan Stadium, where the Tar Heels host ECU. ROBERT WILLETT
East Carolina at North Carolina
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill
TV/radio: ESPNU/WRDU-106.1 FM/WPTK-850 AM
Quick slant: After losing two consecutive games by a combined six points, North Carolina hosts in-state rival East Carolina on Saturday at Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels are searching for their first victory against a FBS team, and also are hoping to avoid the kind of defensive lapses and mental mistakes that have doomed them to defeat in recent weeks. UNC has defeated ECU in each of the past three seasons and is 11-2-1 against the Pirates.
About ECU (2-1, 1-0 Conference USA): After a humbling 48-10 defeat at South Carolina, the Pirates rebounded last week with a 24-14 victory against Southern Miss. ECU returned seven starters on both offense and defense from last year, when the Pirates finished 5-7 in coach Ruffin McNeill’s second season. Like UNC, the Pirates run an up-tempo spread offense. But ECU’s version of it relies more on the pass than the run, though UNC coach Larry Fedora noted earlier this week that the Pirates are emphasizing the running game this year more than they have in the past. The Pirates run a 3-4 defense. Three ECU players were first-team all-conference selections: NT Michael Brooks, LB Jeremy Grove and OG Will Simmons. Thanks mostly to that game at South Carolina, ECU ranks toward the bottom nationally in many statistical categories. Offensively the Pirates are 100th nationally, and they’re 85th defensively.
About UNC (1-2, 0-1 ACC): The Tar Heels nearly pulled off a miraculous victory last week at No. 20 Louisville, where UNC trailed 36-7 at halftime but had a chance to score a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The Heels’ dreadful first half performance led to a 39-34 defeat, but the spirited second half rally was full of positives. UNC made two game-changing plays on special teams, and Bryn Renner threw for a career-high 363 yards passing and five touchdowns, which matched the school record. UNC’s focus this week has been on addressing mistakes and mental lapses that have cost the Tar Heels in each of the past two weeks. LB Kevin Reddick said the defensive scheme had been simplified this week in hopes of avoiding the kind of breakdowns that surfaced in the first half at Louisville. Fedora wants to see more energy, passion and mental toughness.
Three things to watch:
1. Will Giovani Bernard play? For the third consecutive week, Bernard’s status is in doubt. At least publicly. Fedora and UNC players continue to say that Bernard is practicing well and that he looks good. But they’ve said that the past two weeks, only for Bernard not to play on Saturdays.
2. How the Heels start. UNC’s poor first-half performances have ultimately led to defeats in each of the past two weeks. The team has been dominant at times in the second half (more on that later) but that hasn’t translated to victories because of what’s transpired the past two weeks in the first and second quarters.
3. How will UNC defend the spread? The Tar Heels’ defense goes against a spread offense every day in practice, so it should be well-equipped to handle ECU’s version of it.
Key player from the opposition: WR, Justin Hardy.
The redshirt sophomore has emerged as the Pirates most dangerous big-play threat. His 55-yard touchdown catch last week in a victory against Southern Miss is ECU’s longest play from scrimmage this season, and Hardy’s 34-yard touchdown catch the week before in a loss at South Carolina is the Pirates’ second-longest play from scrimmage.
Hardy, who plays in the slot receiver position in ECU’s version of the spread offense, will challenge a UNC defense that struggled against the pass in consecutive defeats against Wake Forest and Louisville. Hardy has played in just 13 games during his collegiate career, but has caught a touchdown pass in seven of his past eight games. He has also averaged 22.5 yards on his two punt returns this season.
Key matchup: The ECU passing game, led by QB Shane Carden, vs. CB Tre Boston and UNC secondary
The Tar Heels’ pass defense has varied wildly in the past two weeks – playing very well in stretches against Wake Forest and Louisville but also succumbing to defensive lapses that have left receivers running wide open. How will UNC fare against the Pirates?
Carden initially lost out on the starting quarterback job, but he came off the bench and played well in that loss at South Carolina before starting last week against Southern Miss. The Pirates running game has been anemic during the first few weeks of the season, so ECU will likely have to rely on its passing offense to have a chance to win.
Key mismatch: UNC’s defensive front six, including LB Kevin Reddick, vs. the ECU running game.
Of the Pirates four players who have more than 10 carries this season – Michael Dobson, Vintavious Cooper, Reggie Bullock and Shane Carden – none are averaging more than 3.9 yards per carry. ECU’s version of the spread emphasizes the pass over the run but, even so, the Pirates have had little success when they have tried to run.
UNC, meanwhile, has had its share of struggles defensively, but the Tar Heels have allowed an average of 96.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks 23rd nationally. Opposing teams have found a way to exploit the Heels through the air, but have found little room to run.
Key number: 51 – UNC has outscored its opponents by 51 points – 61-10 – during the second half. That includes a 38-0 advantage in the third quarter. The problem for the Tar Heels the past two weeks, though, have been slow starts. Will UNC get off to a fast start against ECU or will the Tar Heels again be forced to scramble in the second half?
Pulse check: Fedora has often stressed the importance of establishing his program in the state, and the game against ECU offers UNC another chance to do that. This is an important game for the Pirates, who have the opportunity to defeat an in-state rival from a BCS conference. But it’s equally important for the Heels, who already have suffered one defeat against an in-state opponent and don’t want to experience another.
Quote of the week: “It's an in‑state team, a very important game for a lot of reasons. One, because it's the next opportunity for us. You got a bad taste in your mouth. No one likes the way the last one ended.” –UNC coach Larry Fedora, on the importance of playing ECU after a disappointing loss at Louisville
Loosely-related-to-the-game pregame haiku:
Ahoy there matey
Thar Pirates stormin' Kenan
Will Larry say Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh?
Prediction: North Carolina 37, East Carolina 24