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View from the East
Thursday, September 20, 2012

By Al Myatt

Al Myatt

Stakes have changed for ECU-UNC series

By Al Myatt
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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 senior year.

"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 championships.

"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 momentum from 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.

Turnover factor

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 in 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 contributed to 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 working together

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.

"(Southern Miss) 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 away."

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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09/20/2012 12:27 AM


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