A Closer Look: East Carolina

A familiar foe comes to Chapel Hill this weekend, as North Carolina invites the Pirates of East Carolina to Kenan Stadium for another in-state matchup. It's the 16th time that North Carolina is facing off against ECU on the gridiron, with UNC holding a dominant 12-2-1 overall record in the series.
East Carolina has claimed two wins over UNC on the gridiron over the years, while the Tar Heels have won each of the last four contests against the Pirates by an average of over 16 points per game. In all, UNC has won eight of nine in the series with ECU dating back to the lone tie between the two schools in 1979.
Pat Dye brought a hungry Pirates squad to Kenan Stadium in the midst of a six-game winning streak in the fall of 1975 and on a late October Saturday afternoon came away with a 38-17 over Bill Dooley's Tar Heels, which to this day is East Carolina's only football victory in Chapel Hill.
Then in 2007, Skip Holtz led ECU to a dramatic 34-31 win over Butch Davis's first North Carolina squad in Greenville leading up to UNC's recent four-game win streak (though the 2009 win was vacated).
This time around, both teams are fairly similar on offense, as Larry Fedora and Ruffin McNeill each look to move the ball as fast as they can, hitting several of their athletes in space downfield and creating mismatches.
Coming into the game, one would expect this to be a potential offensive shootout, as both teams are averaging over 23 points per game (UNC at 23.3 points per game, while ECU averages 31.0 points).
Tar Heels have been able to lock down defensively on the Pirates in recent matchups, only giving up 15 points per game on average over the recent four-game win streak.
Tar Heel Illustrated takes a closer look at the Pirates in what should be a very good matchup between two in-state rivals, as North Carolina looks to get back on track and even their record to 2-2 on the season, while ECU looks to get back in the win column after a near upset two weeks ago at home against UNC's ACC Coastal Division rival Virginia Tech.
Shane Carden
Shane Carden has been a complement to the Pirates offense ever since he was named the starter last year and he has continued his success under McNeil so far this season, though Virginia Tech's intense pressure from its front seven forced him into some difficult choices over the course of that particular ball game.
Carden is the engine that makes the Pirates go, as one could see easily as ECU piled up points against Old Dominion and Florida Atlantic. It was also easy to see as the Pirates struggled offensively against the Hokies.
"He (Carden) moves the ball around all over the field. I think he does a great job of distributing it, putting it where it needs to go," Fedora said of ECU's signal-caller.
"He's got some weapons out there at wide receiver. And I think he's very comfortable in what they're doing and (ECU offensive coordinator) Lincoln [Riley] has got him coached up well. They spread it around really well. So they're not afraid to put it in multiple receivers' hands and I think they're executing pretty well. You look at the three games they've played, they move the ball and have done a nice job."
Before the Virginia Tech game, Carden had seven touchdowns and zero interceptions, completing well over 70 percent of his passes, but the Hokies got after him and kept him off-balance, forcing him into three interceptions and a well below-average 61 percent completion rate with just 158 passing yards.
Look for the Tar Heels defense to do the same against this pass happy offense, as UNC will have to get some pressure in the backfield so that Carden can't spread the ball around in open space.
"We're going to have to play really well on defense," said Fedora. "Obviously, it starts with getting some pressure on the quarterback. We're going to have to get some pressure on the quarterback. But you really have to stop the run. You've got to stop the run and make them one-dimensional, and then you've got to get pressure on the quarterback. And then after that, it's tackling in the open field."
The Pirates like to move the ball just as fast as North Carolina does and offensively they implement a relatively close scheme as the Tar Heels do in terms of pace and style.
Carden likes to get rid of the ball moments after the snap with quick screens out to his wideouts and running backs with four to five receivers out on the field most every down.
"They're going to get the ball out in space and you're going to be in one-on-one situations a lot of times. So we've got to get a lot of guys running to the football playing hard, and if we do that we've got a chance," Fedora said of the defensive challenge going against this Pirates team.
The Tar Heels should be used to the speed of the Pirates but as mentioned before, UNC can't allow Carden to sit back in the pocket, as he has the ability to carve up defenses. This will be a huge part of the game that could determine the outcome.
Running Back
When talking about the running back position, the Pirates seem to go to their lead back most of the game, Vintavious Cooper, who has carried the ball 40 times so far for 161 yards and one touchdown on the season.
The Pirates would like to establish some kind of running attack against North Carolina, something close to what they were able to against Florida Atlantic two weeks ago.
Cooper that night rushed for 95 yards and also had 49 receiving yards, helping the Pirates put together a balanced offense that overwhelmed FAU.
However, even though the Pirates will look to establish a run game, they use Cooper in a lot of passing schemes, getting him out of the backfield and in space, as he has the ability to turn on the burners and gain large chunks of yardage for East Carolina. Cooper has 12 receptions on the year for 115 yards (10.1 yards per reception).
The Tar Heels will have to keep track of Cooper and not allow him to escape out of the backfield, especially containing him on screens. Not allowing the Pirates to establish a run game will also be key for the Tar Heels, forcing them to become a one dimensional team and mostly focused on the pass game.
Wide Receivers
There isn't too much difference between the Tar Heels and the Pirates in how they would like to get the ball to their athletes, though UNC has seemed more comfortable throwing downfield over the middle while the Pirates like to throw a lot of balls outside the hashes near the line of scrimmage.
On the year, Carden has connected with 12 different receivers in three games, with Justin Hardy leading the way with 26 receptions and 258 yards.
Hardy will certainly be East Carolina's go-to guy in the passing game, and will be someone that North Carolina's secondary will have to focus on.
The past two seasons though UNC has done a pretty good job covering Hardy, limiting him to less than 100 yards combined in the last two meetings.
But he is capable of putting on a show, as he had a game earlier in the season where he caught 16 balls for 191 yards against Old Dominion. He's a record-breaking playmaker for the Pirates that some might argue is due for a big outing against UNC given the way he's been shut down the last two times out against Carolina.
At the same time, it's a golden opportunity for the UNC secondary to continue building on respectably strong performances the last two times out defending the pass with another strong game.
Hardy certainly isn't the only weapon that the Pirates can utilize through the air, as ECU also has wide receivers Danny Webster, Reese Wiggins, and Davon Grayson, among others, who can make plays on the field for them.
The Pirates defense is better than it has been in the past, as they have limited the big plays against their opponents for the most part. Though they weren't able to come out with the win over the Hokies, the Pirates allowed just 15 points and defensively gave themselves a shot at winning in the fourth quarter.
ECU has a solid front line in Michael Brooks and Lee Pegues, but will be missing a key part in Terry Williams, as he has been suspended.
The linebackers might be the strongest part of this defense, with Derrell Johnson, Gabriel Woullard, Jeremy Grove, and Daniel Drake forming a talented group that could be one of the top linebacker crew in Conference USA this year.
The Tar Heels, who have struggled all season so far to effectively run the ball, need to have better success on the ground than the Hokies did last week against ECU, as their leading rusher only had 42 yards on 21 carries. This was one of multiple reasons why the Pirates kept the game close and reasonably could have won it.
If the Tar Heels offense can really start clicking, which they seem to be able to at home, and run a balanced attack, the Tar Heels should come away with a victory Saturday.
However, there is nothing more that the Pirate faithful would love to see in an East Carolina victory over their in-state rival.
It makes for a dramatic and intriguing encounter between the hedges at Kenan Saturday afternoon.
"When you play an in-state team, you've got guys on your team that played with guys on their (East Carolina's) team, or played against guys on their team in high school, and so they have relationships. And any time you have that scenario, it's going to be a little more intense. You're going to have guys that have histories with each other," said Fedora.
"And then you've got the fans. You've got the fans on the Eastern side of the state that are obviously East Carolina fans. They're sprinkled around, and so there's a lot of bragging rights in play (with this game)."