Before a North Carolina-N.C. State game once, Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora decorated his team’s locker room in red. He isn’t against doing that kind of thing before a rivalry game if it might help motivate his team.
Entering UNC’s game against East Carolina on Saturday in Greenville, though, there hasn’t been a need for locker room decorations or public countdowns or anything else. Motivation for the Tar Heels has come from within – specifically from the memory of their 55-31 loss against ECU a season ago.
“Personally,” safety Tim Scott said Monday, “I don’t think he needs to motivate us. If we’re not motivated after they embarrassed us last year, then we shouldn’t show up.”
UNC’s loss to the Pirates was among the low points of the season – and likely the lowest point. The Tar Heels allowed 603 yards, a season high, and the 55 points were the second-most they’ve allowed under Fedora.
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When it ended, Fedora and his players walked off the field while the ECU band played on at the far side of Kenan Stadium. Pirates fans continued to linger in the stands long after time had expired, savoring ECU’s most decisive victory in an on-again, off-again series that dates to 1972.
After that game, some UNC players said they’d taken ECU lightly. Some said they expected to show up and win, like it would be easy.
There is none of that now, not after last season and not after ECU’s 28-21 victory against then-No. 17 Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Pirates’ triumph in Blacksburg, Va., came one weekend after the Hokies beat Ohio State on the road.
Toward the end of Fedora’s weekly news conference, someone referenced what his players said last season – that they’d looked past the Pirates. Would that be a concern again?
Fedora responded with a blank stare. He stood there, speechless, for nearly five seconds before he said, “I hadn’t really thought about that, actually.”
“I can’t imagine somebody taking somebody lightly after they just beat a ranked opponent,” Fedora said. “And after they wore you out last year. So I hadn’t really thought about that.”
Before the season, the game at ECU didn’t look particularly easy, but it appeared, at least, easier than what comes after it: a trip to Clemson followed by a home game against Virginia Tech followed by a game at Notre Dame.
Now, though, the ECU game appears as formidable as any other. The Pirates had their way against Virginia Tech’s attacking, aggressive defense, and quarterback Shane Carden threw for 427 yards and three touchdowns.
Back in Chapel Hill, Fedora and a lot of his players were watching. Some of the players got together, defensive tackle Ethan Farmer said. Was there a sense of surprise when the Pirates built a 21-0 lead and quieted a loud crowd at Lane Stadium?
“I was,” Farmer said. “We were just looking at how tough this game is going to be for us. I mean, it was pretty tough, watching it.”
It could be more difficult Saturday, facing it in person. Fedora has been pleased with his defense’s ability to force turnovers – the Tar Heels have forced nine, which ranks second nationally among teams that have played two games – but the defense has been porous otherwise.
After two games, and presumably two of the easier games on the schedule, UNC’s defense ranks 92nd nationally against the pass and 72nd against the run. The Tar Heels have had difficulty generating pressure, and against San Diego State they clearly missed Norkeithus Otis, the senior bandit who didn’t play because of a hamstring injury.
A lack of defensive pressure would likely be especially problematic against Carden, who ranks ninth nationally in average passing yards per game. At least there’s this, though: There’s little chance the Tar Heels will overlook the Pirates this year.
Fedora lauded ECU like he has few other opponents during his tenure at UNC, which is now in its third season. The Pirates faced questions about whether they could be as successful as they were last season, but Fedora said he never doubted.
“They’re a better football team than they were last year when we played them, I can tell you,” he said. “ Since I’ve been following it, and it was four years at Southern Miss and now going into my third season here, this is the best team that I’ve seen at East Carolina.”