CHAPEL HILL There are really three
levels within the NCAA classification that used to be known as Division
There's the Football
Championship Subdivision with schools such as Appalachian State and
its scholarship limits.
Then there are two divisions within the
Football Bowl Subdivision. There are the programs in conferences whose
champions are assured inclusion in the Bowl Championship Series. Then
there are programs such as East Carolina with its membership in
Conference USA, whose only chance of climbing to the BCS level is to go
undefeated and play a tough enough schedule to get a favorable rating
from a myriad of computer rankings.
The Pirates have played one of the best
FCS programs in recent years in App State and managed to hold on against
the Mountaineers for
a 29-24 win.
ECU then traveled to face two FBS/BCS
programs on their home turf. The Pirates lost
35-20 to a deceptively-strong West Virginia team last
week. There was a difference in talent and execution again as ECU
was topped 31-17 at North
Carolina on Saturday.
The BCS generates substantial revenue
for its favored conferences, gets more media exposure, and BCS
membership enhances recruiting. Those factors put programs like ECU's at
a competitive disadvantage.
Perhaps some symbolism could be found
in the fact that ECU coach Skip Holtz was locked out of the postgame
interview area at Kenan Stadium, which also serves as a meeting area for
the UNC-Chapel Hill lacrosse program.
The glass ceilings around the mid-major
programs tend to lock schools such as ECU out of realistic contention
against BCS programs with their superior resources. My apologies to the
multitude of Pirate fans who chafe at being called mid-major but some
disparities were readily apparent head to head against the Tar Heels.
"We're talking apples and oranges,"
said Appalachian coach Jerry Moore recently about programs such as his
own, ECU's and the uppercrust of the FBS/BCS.
ECU had 18 starters returning from a
9-5 team that won Conference USA. North Carolina ranks fifth nationally
for fewest seniors with 11. But a Tar Heels offense which struggled last
week in a 12-10 win at Big East stronghold UConn, amassed 433 yards
against an ECU defense that led C-USA last season.
Still, the Pirates were looking for a
win against an in-state rival, not excuses.
"It's frustrating," said Holtz, once he
had gained admission to the interview area in the old Kenan Stadium
fieldhouse. "It's hard to lose, especially for this football team, which
has such lofty goals for themselves and such high expectations not
only to be able to compete but to be able to come in and win.
"There is no moral victory in coming
out of here and saying it was close or any of those type of things."
Maybe it wasn't a moral victory but the
Pirates did manage to make it competitive.
The Tar Heels moved running back A.J.
Blue under center on their second series and his fumble was recovered by
the Pirates at the North Carolina 33. Brandon Jackson ran for 12 yards
to the Tar Heel 12 on third down and Patrick Pinkney hit Jamar Bryant
for a 7-yard score on third down with 7:07 left in the first quarter.
It took the Tar Heels just 2:16 to
answer as they moved 60 yards in six plays to score on a 16-yard pass
from T.J. Yates to Erik Highsmith to tie the score at 7.
"I thought our football team responded
every time there was a challenge," said Tar Heels coach Butch Davis.
"Every time (ECU) had some momentum or every time they made a score (we)
The Tar Heels took a 14-7 lead on a
59-yard Yates pass to Jheranie Boyd, who got behind an ECU secondary
that is missing Levin Neal and Emanuel Davis. Boyd bobbled the ball but
latched on to it for the go-ahead score.
Dwayne Harris played big on ECU's
ensuing series, hitting Joe Womack for a 35-yard gain on a reverse pass
and going the last six yards on a keeper to complete a 77-yard drive
that took just four plays and just 1:42 off the clock.
The Tar Heels broke the tie at 14 and
went ahead to stay as Ryan Houston finished a 73-yard drive with a
1-yard run with 2:57 left in the half for a 21-14 lead.
The Pirates struggled to put points on
the board in the second half although they did move the ball effectively
at times. Time of possession was slightly in the Pirates favor for the
game, 30:46 to 29:14.
"We got some things going on
offensively and we put a couple of drives together," Holtz said. "But
what we lacked as an offensive football team was some of the big plays
and that was probably one of the real differences in the game.
"I think in the second half we had a
12- and 15-play drive that resulted in three points. That's a lot of
offensive plays to only get three points on the board."
Holtz said he opted for a 22-yard field
goal by Ben Hartman with 6:21 remaining rather than going for it on
fourth-and-one at the North Carolina 5-yard line because he felt the
Pirates needed to get within one score. Hartman, who kicked
the game winner in Greenville
against the Tar Heels in 2007, closed the gap to 24-17 with the first
points the offense has produced in the second half this season.
ECU's window of opportunity closed
quickly as Yates connected with Highsmith for 43 yards to spark a series
that extended the lead to 31-17.
The North Carolina program appears to
be on the upswing under Davis if the relative performances of the two
teams Saturday are any indication.
ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney said he
didn't have much time. Pinkney passed for 406 yards and three scores
against the Tar Heels in 2007. Credit BCS resources as a factor in
allowing an effective rebuilding job by the Heels since then.
Former Pirates coach Steve Logan
pointed out the impact that joining a BCS conference had on the Virginia
Tech program when the Hokies were admitted to the Big East. Virginia
Tech went from being a competitive program to a national power.
Logan said the gap was only widening
between BCS and non-BCS schools at the close of his tenure at ECU.
The good news for the Pirates is that
Central Florida is on the horizon next week in Greenville. That's a
league game and the Pirates will be on a level playing field within
their own division so to speak.
It will be apples and apples for a