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The theme at East Carolina’s first practice of the week
on Sunday night was clear. The Pirate players and coaches were looking
at Saturday's game against in-state rival North Carolina as ‘the next
game on the schedule.’
Sorry folks, it’s not.
I rarely disagree with Pirate head coach Ruffin McNeill
but I do on this one.
Of course, I really don’t believe that McNeill or anyone
else associated with the program looks at this matchup with North
Carolina as just another game. I think they know it’s important, but
have decided to spin their interest in a different way looking for
I asked Coach Ruff about the importance of the game after
practice on Sunday night. Another reporter asked the same question at
Monday’s press conference. Both times the emphasis was deflected away
the same way McNeill deflected passes as a defensive back at ECU in the
“Wins are big,” explained Coach McNeill. “I just want to
get on the field again for our players. The last game we played, that
was a tough locker room to address. I’ve addressed a lot of locker rooms
as a coordinator and a head coach, and its tough. These kids have
invested a lot and I want to win for them first. All games are big to a
coach. I understand the in-state rivalry. I’m looking forward to the
competition, the contest and the challenge, but I’m looking forward to
doing what we need to do to make sure we have success on Saturday.”
McNeill refused to be reeled in. They all know it’s
bigger. It’s another rare chance to, as Coach Ruff likes to say, to put
your big boy pads on.
The Pirates desperately want a chance to play in the
bigger bowls. The move to the American Athletic Conference is certainly
a step. All of the teams in the AAC, though, have to play and beat the
big boys in order for that league to move up in stature.
ECU isn't expected to win every game against BCS teams.
But McNeill and this staff understand that the expectations are there
from the fan base to win their share.
The Pirates had plenty of chances to steal one
from Virginia Tech a couple of weeks ago. This past
week, Conference USA rival Marshall had an even better chance to pull
the upset over the Hokies.
Sometimes teams just aren’t ready to take advantage of
The Pirates want to show that they are ready for this
challenge. East Carolina heads to Chapel Hill as an 11-point underdog.
“I think it will be a tough test for us,” said Tar Heels
quarterback Bryn Renner. “They have a chip on their shoulder because we
are Carolina and they are East Carolina but I think it will be a great
game like it is every year.“
I’m not sure what Brenner meant by that comment. I do
know the Tar Heels lead the all-time series 12-2-1. I have a good idea
what Brenner meant, though. It’s the same chip I’m talking about. That’s
the importance of a game like this in a nutshell.
The Pirates need to take that chip on their shoulder with
them to Kenan Stadium this weekend.
“We know what they think about us,” said Pirate
quarterback Shane Carden. “That’s fine. We just want to go there this
week and play well.”
Carden made his second career start
last year in Chapel Hill. The Heels took advantage of
Carden’s inexperience and pressured him all afternoon.
“I think we’ll be better this year,” said Carden. “I
watched the film and we had some opportunities in that game.”
ECU comes into this matchup after an off-week. The Heels
come in after losing at Georgia Tech. The Pirates could be getting the
Heels at a good time, because physically it’s very difficult to bounce
back after playing an option football team with all of the cut blocks at
the line of scrimmage.
McNeill says his team spent their off-week working on the
“There is no substitute for fundamental improvement,
making sure we get better at the little things, from footwork to body
position, blocking, tackling, routes, defensive positions and fitting on
runs,” explained McNeill. “We did a lot of good on good, and best on
best last week to keep the speed of the game there for the guys.”
With realignment in college football, where everything is
about the dollar, we are losing rivalries that made the sport as popular
as it is today.
In-state games are big for both teams. In order to be a
true rivalry, however, both teams have to earn their share of wins.
The Pirates have some work to do in that department and
they hope it begins in Chapel Hill on Saturday.