Misfortune has generally accompanied East Carolina on
trips to Chapel Hill. Some of it has been self-inflicted, some not.
At times calamity has been the product of bizarre
occurrences that some will insist were aided by a phantom, blue-clad
12th man. There have been touchdown-eliminating penalties, end zone
fumbles, and sure interceptions that ricocheted into the arms of an
unsuspecting Tar Heels tight end.
That was just
the 2001 game. If you browse through the annals of this
one-sided series, you are certain to find more.
But you also are more likely to uncover ECU teams
that weren't quite as talented as North Carolina and didn't execute
with the proficiency required to beat a better foe. The Pirates no
doubt will need to play with offensive precision to have any chance
against the Heels this Saturday, unlike they did
against Virginia Tech last week.
Despite the Hokies gift-wrapping numerous
opportunities, the Pirates never took advantage.
“I was proud of us for making those opportunities,”
Pirates Coach Ruffin McNeill said following ECU's loss to Virginia
Tech. “Our defense stepped in and forced those things to happen, so
I was proud of that.
“We all want to take advantage of those
opportunities. We all want to take advantage of turnovers. (Against
Virginia Tech) we didn't get a chance to, and we didn't do as well
as we could.”
McNeill is at least right on the latter. Much of that
can be attributed to the fact that ECU tried to beat the Hokies with
one hand tied behind its back.
That approach might work
against Old Dominion, but it doesn't against a
traditionally upper tier program from a privileged conference. Tech
proved that much by feasting off a Pirates offensive game plan that
featured 41 called pass plays and 13 runs.
(Note that, officially, ECU was credited with 31
passes and 23 rushes; remove the sacks and Shane Carden scrambles to
get the intended total.)
East Carolina will not leave Kenan Stadium with a
victory leveraging a similar offensive approach.
After Carden was inserted into the starting lineup
last year, it seemed as if the offense was evolving beyond just its
Air Raid roots. Running back Tay Cooper was getting more touches,
and the read option had a place in the rotation of calls.
There hasn't been nearly enough of that this season,
making the Pirates somewhat easy to predict. Outside of the opening
drive against the Hokies, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud
Foster's calls made it seem as if he was receiving real-time intel
from the ECU sideline.
The result was the Pirates' inability to extend
drives and a nearly 14 minute difference in time of possession. And
despite all its offensive shortcomings, ECU still was in position to
win it in the end.
That won't be the case against North Carolina
Saturday without a few wrinkles. A failure to introduce some
offensive balance and control a little more clock will lead to a
very long afternoon in Chapel Hill.
There is plenty to be encouraged about regarding East
Carolina's defensive performance during its last two games. Since
the Pirates' season opener, they've climbed the national defensive
charts, now ranking 43rd in total defense, 10th in rush defense,
11th in sacks, and 13th in red zone defense.
Not bad for a group that ranked among the nation's
worst last year.
Can much of the Pirates' defensive resurgence be
attributed to the caliber of competition they've faced? Absolutely.
Florida Atlantic had the look of an offensive
mess, and no one is accusing Virginia Tech of having the offensive
skill and philosophy of a prolific, point-scoring machine.
Even so, there is no question that new defensive
coordinator Rick Smith has the Pirates trending upward.
ECU will face by far its biggest defensive test
Saturday with a Tar Heels group that brings a balanced blend with
its spread attack. It also offers by far the best personnel ECU will
have faced to date.
The keys Saturday will be to keep quarterback Bryn
Renner under duress, especially on 3rd down. That's when the Pirates
have been at their worst this season, and significant improvement is
needed to have any chance against the Heels.
N.C. State's 26-14 loss emphasized something that
apparently isn't secluded to Conference USA. Poor officiating has
become conference agnostic.
The Pirates surely have been bitten by several missed
calls this year, with officials reluctant to toss flags for
facemasks, holding, pass interference, and unnecessary roughness
that is tied to the new targeting rule. They also benefited from an
official not hurling a flag for targeting in the win over FAU.
The main problem facing officiating today isn’t so
much that officials are missing the occasional call. That is to be
But the fact that they are now making a huge impact
on the outcome of games shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s clear that
leagues need to enforce more quality control over their official.