N.C. State’s Matt Dayes didn’t know much about East Carolina before the Wolfpack played the Pirates three years ago.
“At the time, no honestly, I had never really heard of them,” said Dayes, who grew up in south Florida.
The Pirates’ 42-28 win at Carter-Finley Stadium in Nov. 2013 certainly got the attention of Dayes, N.C. State’s star senior running back.
“I thought they were one of the best teams I’ve ever played since being here,” Dayes said.
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The Pirates (1-0) and Wolfpack (1-0) will meet again in a pivotal early-season game for both programs. Dayes helped the Wolfpack win its opener, 48-14 over William & Mary last Thursday, with 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The intensity will be different at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday in Greenville (noon, ESPNU) when the rival schools meet for the third time in seven years.
N.C. State, in coach Dave Doeren’s fourth season, has a chance to end ECU’s five-game winning streak over the ACC.
The game also might turn out to be critical to N.C. State’s bowl hopes this season. With five games against ranked teams, N.C. State will need to pick up games where it can to get to six wins and become bowl eligible. ECU’s bowl math becomes tricky without a home win over the Wolfpack, too.
The Wolfpack will play in more high-profile games this season but maybe not one as important to the overall success of the season.
“I’m not going to hang my season on a game but obviously to be 2-0 coming out of this would be outstanding for our team,” Doeren said.
Doeren’s first meeting in 2013 with the Pirates was never a contest. ECU led 35-7 at the end of three quarters and its purple-clad fans took over N.C. State’s stadium in the second half.
“They were a very good football team, and had a lot of experienced players, and we were a very young football team,” Doeren said.
That ECU team finished 10-3 and was the only one in school history to beat N.C. State and North Carolina in the same season.
The Wolfpack lost eight straight games to close the 2013 season and finished 3-9 in Doeren’s first year.
“We were not in Year 1 what we are now in Year 4,” Doeren said.
The Pirates, who opened with a 52-7 win over Western Carolina, are the program in transition this time.
Scottie Montgomery, a former Duke assistant, was hired to replace coach Ruffin McNeill after ECU went 5-7 last year.
McNeill, a former ECU player, had prioritized the in-state and ACC games with wins over N.C. State in 2010 and ’13, UNC in 2013 and ’14 and Virginia Tech last year and in ’14.
But the Pirates went 5-3 and 3-5 in the American Athletic Conference in McNeill’s final two seasons. Montgomery was given the directive to improve in conference play.
The Pirates are different on offense under Montgomery but still prolific. New quarterback Philip Nelson threw for 398 yards and five touchdowns in his first start for ECU. Senior receiver Zay Jones caught 10 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown and junior running back Anthony Scott had 120 yards on 11 carries.
With two straight wins over the Wolfpack, and seven of the past 11 in the series, there’s no need to explain to N.C. State how difficult ECU can be.
“We remember what they did to us, so we’re going to try to return the favor this weekend,” Dayes said.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio