This one doesn’t appear close, at least not on paper. UNC junior Marquise Williams has had some nice moments as a starter, and his mobility is a big help given the Tar Heels’ struggles on the offensive line. Still, he sometimes makes questionable decisions and he has yet to establish himself as a consistent down-field passer. ECU senior Shane Carden, meanwhile, is arguably the best quarterback in school history. He holds the school record for completions and passing touchdowns, and needs 744 passing yards to set the career record there, too.
ECU passing offense vs. UNC pass defense
With Carden and Justin Hardy, a senior receiver who set single-season school records in receptions (114) and receiving yards (1,284) last season, the Pirates have one of the best passing offenses UNC will face this season, if not the best. Carden threw for 376 yards in the Pirates’ victory against UNC last season. The Pirates use an uptempo spread and Carden seems to thrive under pressure. The Tar Heels have come up with some big plays in the secondary – two late interceptions sealed a victory against San Diego State – but the pass rush hasn’t developed, receivers have been open and Norkeithus Otis, the Tar Heels’ best pass rusher, could be rusty in his first game back from an injury.
ECU rushing offense vs. UNC run defense
The Pirates haven’t been running as often this season, which is understandable given that Vintavious Cooper is no longer around (good thing for UNC, given he ran for 186 yards against the Tar Heels last season) and that the strength of the offense is unquestionably the passing game. Three starters on the ECU offensive line started for the first time this season. UNC hasn’t been great against the run, though, and when they have run, the Pirates have had some success. They’re averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
UNC passing offense vs. ECU pass defense
The Tar Heels should have an advantage here. Their receiving corps is deep and experienced. They have a mix of capable receivers on the outside, with Quinshad Davis and Bug Howard, and in the slot Ryan Switzer creates challenges with his speed. The Pirates have allowed at least 266 yards passing in the past two weeks and they’ve been a mixed bag in the secondary, where the cornerbacks have played well but the safeties have had some issues. The question is whether UNC can protect well enough to allow passing plays to develop, and whether Williams can deliver passes where they’re needed.
UNC rushing offense vs. ECU run defense
The Tar Heels’ rushing game has been an enigma. There’s no shortage of apparent talent – T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood were among the top high school prospects in the state in recent years – but no UNC running back is averaging more than 39 yards through the first two games. Hood, it must be said, is entering only his third college game. UNC will be without Landon Turner, its best offensive lineman. He’s hurt. ECU’s defensive line is stout, especially with nose tackle Terry Williams back in the lineup after he missed the first two games.
UNC sophomore Ryan Switzer has yet to return a punt for a touchdown this season, but the threat is always there. He did that five times a season ago. Switzer should have some return opportunities given that Worth Gregory, the Pirates punter, is averaging 48.4 yards per punt, which ranks sixth nationally. UNC kicker Nick Weiler has produced touchbacks on 13 of his 16 kickoffs.
The Tar Heels didn’t play last weekend, and so they’ve had nearly two weeks to prepare for ECU – two weeks to stew in the embarrassing memories of their 55-31 loss against the Pirates last season. Coach Larry Fedora is hoping the bye week helped. ECU, meanwhile, is seeking its first winning streak against UNC, and its fourth consecutive victory against an ACC opponent. And, oh yes, sold-out Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will be rocking.