CAROLINA & CONFERENCE USA
View from the East
Thursday, September 20, 2012
By Al Myatt
Stakes have changed for ECU-UNC series
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When East Carolina
competed as an independent in football from 1977 through 1996, there
wasn't a bigger game than a road trip to play an in-state, Atlantic
Coast Conference opponent.
While Saturday's trip to
Chapel Hill has significant implications for the Pirates, it is no
longer a season-defining matchup. ECU coach Ruffin McNeill has played
and coached against North Carolina. As a player, McNeill's teams were
0-2-1 against UNC, the pair of losses by a total of six points. A late
field goal by the Tar Heels produced a 24-24 tie in 1979, McNeill's
"It was a tight game,"
recalled the Pirates coach. "It was a hard-fought game. They had a
chance to win it and they decided to go for the kick. It was a very
physical ball game, a very intense ball game."
Being from Lumberton,
McNeill understood the games with North Carolina meant bragging rights
across the state.
"You knew a lot of the
guys from high school games," he said. "There was crossover. A lot of us
played in All-Star games. We had 13 Pirates in the East-West game. I'm
sure the coaches crossed over, like we do now with recruiting. They knew
of each other through the business. It was sort of like a neighborhood
game where you go play the kids from the other neighborhood. You meet
halfway or they come to your place or you go there and you battle it
out. It was very competitive."
While a win over an ACC
opponent used to be an achievement to hang the helmets on, the Pirates
now gear themselves to thinking in terms of Conference USA
"We appreciate the
nonconference games," McNeill said. "When you're an independent it
doesn't matter, but when you're in a conference you have to put your
focus on your conference games. Those games can give you extra games at
the end of the year when it's all said and done.
"But the competitor in
you, you put a value on each game. Anytime the referees are out there
and the clock's on, you always want to win the game."
That said, the North
Carolina game Saturday is huge. It's a chance for the Pirates to
establish some credibility in the region. It's a chance to continue
a 24-14 win at Southern Miss
into next week's C-USA game with Texas-El Paso in Greenville ... and
it's still very much about bragging rights.
ECU was tied with Iowa
State for the most turnovers in the Football Bowl Subdivision last year
as each team had 35. The Pirates reached that total in 12 games while
the Cyclones played 13.
Ball security was an issue
a 35-20 loss to the Tar Heels in
Greenville last season as the Pirates had four turnovers while the Heels
played turnover free. All of the ECU miscues came in the first half and
put the Pirates in a 28-3 hole at intermission.
"We can't turn the ball
over against a talented football team," McNeill said. "They'll take
advantage of the turnovers."
The Pirates have been on a
bit of a roller coaster this season in terms of good decisions and
taking care of the football. Five turnovers at South Carolina
a 48-10 loss. No turnovers at
Southern Miss while taking advantage of three takeaways helped ECU to
a 1-0 start in C-USA.
"Teams with that type of
talent like North Carolina, South Carolina and Southern Miss — you can
not turn the ball over or they'll make you pay," McNeill said.
When current Tar Heels
coach Larry Fedora was at Southern Miss last season, the Golden Eagles
scored four non-offensive touchdowns against the Pirates in the first
half on two interceptions, a punt return and a blocked punt. The Golden
Eagles led 38-14 at intermission and took
a 48-28 win.
"At the same time, you
also have to take the ball away from the opponent," McNeill said. "You
need to get the ball out of their hands. They both (turnovers and
takeaways) go hand in hand. We want to have great ball security but we
also want to have our share of takeaways as well."
Three sides of the ball
McNeill often talks about
three sides of the ball and each unit playing 11-man football. Those
numbers multiplied out well last week at Southern Miss.
The defense kept ECU in
the game until the offense got going and the punt unit helped the
Pirates win the field position battle for most of the day.
"The defense got stops in
the first half," McNeill said of the turning points against USM. "Warren
Harvey's (54-yard) field goal and Trent Tignor's punting combined. Those
three things produced a turning point. They were all working together."
ECU trails 27-11 in its
series with Southern Miss but success against the Golden Eagles
generally has been a springboard for the Pirates. ECU is 9-1 in its next
game after a win over USM. The only loss came after the Pirates beat the
Golden Eagles 10-6 to end the 1983 season and ECU began the 1984 season
with a 48-17 loss at Florida State.
definitely makes you go to another level," McNeill said. "You have to be
well prepared, be at your highest focus to win that game."
ECU's practice on Tuesday
was interrupted by lightning. McNeill felt that put greater importance
on having good sessions the remainder of the week.
"We put good prep days
back to back going into Southern Miss," McNeill said.
Depth on defense
The Pirates have all three
nose tackles, Terrell Stanley, Terry Williams and Michael Brooks, listed
as possible starters this week. It's a situation representative of the
depth that has been developed since ECU was last in the NCAA in total
defense in 2010.
"We had to upgrade the
talent level, for one," McNeill said. "Not only in recruiting but
through Coach (Jeff) Connors (assistant athletic director for strength
and conditioning) and his program of development in the offseason in the
strength and conditioning area. We wanted to build depth at all
positions. You can't play the same 11 the entire game.
"That first year, Derrell
Johnson and Matt Milner (defensive ends) played 70 or 80 snaps a game as
freshmen. We want to continue building depth and keep our players as
healthy as possible. It's a very physical game. We play some physical
teams — another one this weekend in Carolina — so we have to make sure
we have our guys healthy and ready to go."
Run game contributes
Vintavious Cooper, better
known as "Ta" within the ECU program, provided a glimmer of promise for
the running game with 13 carries for a net of 51 yards at Southern Miss.
Cooper transferred to ECU from Southwest Mississippi Community College.
"We want to be a balanced
offense," McNeill said. "You have to be able to throw the football.
Three yards and a cloud of dust does not work in this day and time so we
want to be a balanced offense. We want to be able to move the ball to
keep the defense honest and keep the linebackers honest and everyone
involved. So we have to be able to run the football. I thought Ta Cooper
did a good job of doing that last week. After watching film and watching
practice Tuesday, I saw Reggie Bullock and Michael Dobson doing the same
thing that Ta was doing."
Key factors Saturday
McNeill summarized the
important factors for the Pirates on Saturday.
"Execution," he said.
"After emotion wears off — execution, 11-man football. Start fast, play
fast and sustain it to the finish. Play smart. We can't give them
opportunities. We've played smart the last three games, penalty-wise.
... We've got to continue that part, take care of the ball and take it
Ruff, the film critic
The Pirates take in a
movie on Friday night before game day.
McNeill was asked about
the best show he'd seen thus far this season.
"The Expendables 2 last
week — best movie," said the Pirates coach. "The Bourne (Legacy) was not
very good. It was slow. The Expendables was great last week. I enjoyed
it. The team did, too."
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