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View from the 'ville
Thursday, November 23, 2006

By Al Myatt

Holtz Thanksgiving list extends beyond football

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Skip Holtz couldn't be considered a Thanksgiving grinch. Even with a rival matchup with N.C. State approaching on Saturday night in Raleigh, the East Carolina coach set up his practice schedule to give his players time off today.

On the holiday designed to allow us to acknowledge our blessings, Holtz said he has plenty for which to give thanks.

"I'm thankful for a lot of things, but without a doubt you start with health and family," Holtz said. "The three little kids we have that come up and hug my neck every day could care less whether we won or lost.

"I'm very thankful for family and thankful for our health, especially with my mother who has been through five bouts of cancer. I'm thankful she has survived that."

Having a Division I-A head coaching position at ECU is also on Holtz's list.

"I'm thankful to have the opportunity to be at East Carolina," he said.

Having a chance for the Pirates to play Houston for the Conference USA football championship also would be something special.

"I'm going to be thankful if Marshall can beat Southern Miss," Holtz said. "I'd be very, very thankful to Coach (Mark) Snyder."

Those looking for a topic of discussion over turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie today might debate which is actually the bigger game for the Pirates on Saturday, their contest with the Wolfpack or the tilt in Hattiesburg between the Thundering Herd and Golden Eagles.

In case you've been in hibernation or somehow removed from Planet Pirate over the last week, a Marshall win on Saturday night means ECU wins C-USA's East Division and plays Houston at Robertson Stadium on Friday night, Dec. 1, for the league title.

Holtz, of course, is the son of a former N.C. State coach. His dad, Lou, guided the State program during a successful span from 1972 to 1975. Skip was born in 1964 and has childhood memories of that era. He also knows the significance of the ECU-State series, which was played annually in Raleigh from 1970 to 1987.

Holtz's dad never lost to the Pirates.

"There's no doubt that this is a big game," said the younger Holtz. "It's got an awful lot of implications from a bragging rights standpoint, N.C. State only being an hour away. It has implications from a recruiting standpoint, obviously, with a lot of the in-state athletes, and it's an opportunity for us to play against an ACC team.

"There's a lot of things that make this an exciting game and one that's going to be very emotional. A lot of our players played with a lot of players from N.C. State in high school.

"You could ask a lot of people around the Greenville area and they'd tell you the rest of the season doesn't matter. There's only one game that's really important and that's the one we're about to play this weekend.

"When you get into the geographical rivalry games, there's so many bragging rights involved. That makes it very big to the fans and media from that area. This one's going to have an awful lot riding on it."

ECU has beaten two teams — Virginia and Southern Miss — that beat the Wolfpack, but Holtz cautioned against reading too much into NCSU's record.

"N.C. State is a very talented team," said the Pirates coach. "People want to look at 'em and say, 'They're 3-8 right now,' but they went through some woes early trying to find a quarterback. (Daniel) Evans has really stepped in and done a very nice job for them.

"They have two of the better running backs in the country and they have some very talented wide receivers. They've lost football games by two points, four points, six points, three points. Anytime you're in coaching long enough, you have those years where it just seems like everything goes against you.

"It's certainly not a lack of talent with them right now."

Even though State lost three first round draft choices to the NFL from last year's defensive unit, Holtz said that side of the ball remains impressive.

"Their linebackers are very athletic," Holtz said. "They move around. They're very physical. Their safeties are big. They're a run-stopping bunch. We won't play against a better defensive lineman than Tank Tyler."

The ECU-State game has marked the exit for coaches in each of the last two meetings. In 1999, a 23-6 Pirates win in Greenville was bon voyage for Mike O'Cain as the Pack's boss. Pirates coach John Thompson had already been dismissed when State whipped ECU 52-14 in Charlotte in 2004 in his final game.

As speculation swirls about Chuck Amato's coaching status at NCSU, he has refused to comment on the possibility that the game with the Pirates may be his last with the Wolfpack. Amato, who once said playing ECU was not an equitable competitive situation because of the difference in admission policies, has at least avoided inflammatory statements regarding the Pirates this week.

"There's an awful lot of interest in playing East Carolina — any team in this state in both directions," Amato said.

Both ECU and State have had to regroup from disappointing losses last week. The Pack fell 23-9 to North Carolina while the Pirates lost a chance to wrap up the C-USA East Division at Rice last week when the Owls kicked a 40-yard field goal with three seconds left for an 18-17 win.

"It was a painful loss because there was so much at stake," Holtz said. "Our players had played and practiced and conditioned to get to this point. Being picked last in the conference, they kind of had a last to first type of mindset.

"To be that close makes it very difficult but I give Rice an awful lot of credit. They went out and played extremely hard."

One aspect of the Rice loss that continues to be a sore spot for ECU was the loss of offensive tackle Eric Graham to an injury early in the game. Graham is doubtful this week and the Pirates are still trying to figure out how to handle his absence.

"(Losing Graham) made it difficult to do some things from an offensive standpoint," Holtz said.

The atmosphere at Carter-Finley Stadium should be electric with an ESPNU television audience looking in as well. Hopefully, both teams will be able to shake recent misfortunes and put forth an effort worthy of the history of the series.

One team's fans will go home with bragging rights — something they can be thankful for until the two rivals meet again next season in Greenville.

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02/23/2007 12:30:54 AM


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