Welcome to game day, folks. North Carolina last night traveled east for its game today at East Carolina and, according to Ryan Switzer, the Tar Heels received a nice warm welcome out this way.
Some pregame links …
--An ol' fashioned who-has-the-edge between the Tar Heels and the Pirates. Read it and weep, UNC fans (more on that below).
--From Luke DeCock, a great story on ECU receiver Justin Hardy, who became the school's all-time leading receiver after arriving as a walk-on with no Division I scholarship offers.
--And I spent a day in Greenville earlier this week and wrote a story about the anticipation for today, and the community's bond with ECU and the football team.
And some pregame thoughts …
--If you read that who-has-the-edge, you'll notice that I gave the Tar Heels the edge in only one category: special teams. That doesn't reflect the talent disparity between these teams. UNC has better athletes, across the board, and has players who were significantly more highly rated when they arrived in college. ECU coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff, though, have done an outstanding job of making the most of what they've had to work with.
–That's not to say the Pirates don't have some clear personnel advantages. They do. Quarterback, with Shane Carden. At receiver, with Justin Hardy. ECU's defensive line is better than UNC's offensive line -especially given the Tar Heels will be without Landon Turner, who suffered an injury in the San Diego State game. Overall, ECU's offense appears to be in much better shape than UNC's defense. Outside of generating turnovers – and that's been important, certainly – UNC's defense has been … not good.
--Speaking of which, what can the Tar Heels use from their experience last season against the Pirates? ECU gained more than 600 yards a season ago in Chapel Hill, and UNC was equally futile against the run and the pass. There were blown assignments, missed tackles. And even when the Tar Heels were in the right place at the right time, they still gave up plays. So what do they take away from it? Yeah, new team, new year – all that good stuff. But you'd think UNC would try to take a different approach today.
-Another question: Can UNC run effectively? Turner's absence doesn't bode well. And even when he did play, the rushing offense wasn't all that effective. The Tar Heels have an enviable stable of backs and no shortage of talent. But none of those guys is averaging more than 39 rushing yards per game. The blocking hasn't been good, but a productive running game depends on guys making plays on their own, too. The Tar Heels haven't done that.
--Three keys for UNC today:
1. Hold your own up front.
ECU's offensive line has been better than UNC's defensive front. And the Pirates' defensive line, especially with the return of nose tackle Terry Williams, is more formidable than the Tar Heels' offensive line. UNC doesn't have to control the line of scrimmage, necessarily, but it can't be overwhelmed up front, either. The Tar Heels are banged up on both sides of the line, but they still have more depth and, supposedly, more talent.
2. The play of the secondary against ECU's passing offense.
Carden excelled against pressure against Virginia Tech. And, undoubtedly, he thrives, too, the more time he's given to find open receivers. The Pirates are going to make some big plays, and they'll make those plays even without senior receiver Cam Worthy, who will miss the game because of a suspension. ECU announced Worthy's suspension about 90 minutes before the start of the game on Saturday. Losing Worthy is a blow, and UNC will benefit. Even so, can the Tar Heels limit the big plays?
3. Establish a running game.
As we talked about moments ago, UNC's rushing offense has been lacking. Not coincidentally, the offense as a whole hasn't looked all that good. T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood have the potential to form one of the best backfield tandems in the ACC. Now would be a good time to show why.
ECU 44, UNC 28
The logic isn't too difficult to figure here. UNC hasn't come close to putting together a complete game this season, and it took the Tar Heels about two and a half quarters to get going against both Liberty and San Diego State. UNC did what it needed to do to win both of those games, but it will need a lot more, it seems, against the Pirates, who are coming off a victory at Virginia Tech that ranks among the best in recent ECU history. The Tar Heels can win today, but it will need the kind of effort and execution it has yet to produce this season.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter .