Skip Holtz's East Carolina squad (1-1) comes to Chapel Hill this weekend for a noon showdown Saturday with North Carolina (2-0) at Kenan Stadium. The Pirates are looking for its second straight victory over UNC after defeating the Tar Heels in Greenville back in 2007.
UNC head coach Butch Davis goes way back with the Pirates---in fact all the way back to his days as an assistant coach at Miami under Jimmy Johnson.
In all, Davis has faced East Carolina seven times over the years, winning four times over the Pirates as a Hurricanes assistant.
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However, Davis has never beaten ECU has a head coach, losing to the Pirates in 1996 and 1999, and then as North Carolina's head coach two seasons ago.
"They're a good football program, going back to the mid-80s when we played East Carolina when I was an assistant coach at Miami," said Davis. "I remember they had an 8-3 team that was one of the best teams in the country, and the only three games they lost that year were to Florida, Florida State, and Miami."
"They've had a huge tradition over an extended period of time of having good football teams, good athletes, and good coaches," he added.
The 2009 Pirates, led at quarterback by sixth-year player Patrick Pinkney, are averaging 278.5 yards per game after two outings---a win over Appalachian State and a loss to West Virginia.
Although Pinkney has thrown three interceptions in the two games while completing just 42.4 percent of his passes for 306 yards, the North Carolina players and coaches gave Pinkney a great deal of praise this week.
After all, this is the same Pat Pinkney that torched the Tar Heels for 406 passing yards two years ago in Greenville.
"They've got a very, very experienced quarterback in his sixth year," said UNC head coach Butch Davis of Pinkney. "There's not going to be a lot of teams that he hasn't seen. You're not going to disguise him. You're not going to 'bluff' him or trick him. He's going to have seen just about everything from an experience standpoint."
"He's a great quarterback---athletic and can throw the ball," said junior safety Deunta Williams. "He's an excellent athlete, and just like (former West Virginia quarterback) Pat White. People thought that he was going to be able to destroy us running the ball (in the Meineke Car Bowl) and he destroyed us passing the ball."
"I think we've got to prepare for him (Pinkney) to be at his best," Williams added. "I think we've got to go out there and think that he's going to give us our best shot. They are going to play like it's the end of the world to them, and we're going to do the same. We're facing a really good offense with explosive players and a great quarterback, so this week I think we've got to really try to contain Pinkney a little bit."
The Pirates have plenty of fast, talented skill players such as running backs Dominique Lindsay and Brandon Jackson, who have combined for 216 net rushing yards through two contests, and veteran wide receivers such as junior Dwayne Harris and senior Jamar Bryant.
Harris comes into the UNC game with eight catches for 72 yards, while Bryant comes in with seven receptions for 70 yards.
Harris and Bryant are clearly the top two playmakers in the ECU passing game, with no other receiver having made more than three catches through the first two weeks.
"This week's challenge is totally different. This is a much, much faster football team than the team we played last weekend," said Davis. "They've got a lot of speed at the skill positions. It's kind of a typical East Carolina football team that the wide receivers, the running backs, the defensive backs are all very fast. They've got 17 starters coming back, and they're a very well-coached football team."
"I know they have a lot of good athletes there at ECU," said Williams.
Pinkney and the Pirates burned the Tar Heels last time the teams met with a few big plays ---aided in large part by former ECU and current NFL star Chris Johnson---but Williams believes the Tar Heels are much better prepared this time around for what East Carolina will be throwing at them.
"Last time they kind of got us on rolling out, and we were young," he said. "We didn't really know about 'spreading out rules' and the guys to the flat has to take the No. 1 receiver and stuff like that, so they got us on a lot of those routes, but they also busted some big screens on us. Some of that was contributed to our youth, and some of that was not being disciplined."
"I think as a defense as a whole we're a lot more disciplined on defense this year, so hopefully we can limit some of those things," Williams added. "I think they busted one for 70 yards, so maybe limit that to six or seven yards instead of 70."
Defensively, the Pirates are led by a tough, aggressive defensive line, led by senior defensive end C.J. Wilson (13 tackles, two tackles for loss), senior defensive tackle Jay Ross (nine tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss), junior defensive tackle Linval Joseph (nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks), and senior defensive end Scotty Robinson (four tackles, two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks).
Between them, the foursome has combined for 11 career varsity letters over the last three seasons, and they could make the sledding tough at times for the banged-up UNC offensive line.
"We've got to play much better (than we did against UConn offensively)," said Coach Davis. "The challenge gets even bigger this week because of the talent and the size of the two defensive tackles that East Carolina has. There are a lot more aggressive defensively. Their front seven is very talented. They're big and they're physical in both the offensive and defensive line."
"Their front seven is extremely strong," said Yates of East Carolina. "Their defensive line and their linebackers are the strength of their defense. Their defensive line is big. They do a lot of twists. They're always moving around. They're a little bit different than the defenses we've seen the past two weeks, so it's going to be a different look for us."
"We're going to have to practice extremely hard this week just getting ready for their looks and their strength and their defensive line and linebackers," Yates added. "90 percent of the guys are all seniors and have a lot of letters in that front seven, so they're definitely very experienced. They've been playing with each other for a long time, so they know what to do and they know how to read each off other and everything."
Yates made a good point about the experience of ECU's front seven, for all three starting linebackers---Jeremy Chambliss (team-high 19 tackles and three tackles for loss), Chris Mattocks (12 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss), and Nick Johnson (11 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss)---are seniors.
The Pirates will get a bump in the secondary this weekend, as defensive backs Levin Neal and Emanuel Davis are expected to be ready to play this week after suffering through injuries.
ECU, who has allowed an average of 239 passing yards over the first two games of the season, can definitely use the help, and while the Tar Heels were not able to watch recent film of either Neal or Davis, that doesn't mean they haven't been able to evaluate them.
"A lot of those guys have played so much for them for the past couple of years, so they've got evidence of tape," said Coach Davis. "You wouldn't suspect anything differently. Unless people get season-ending injuries or really significant injuries most anybody is week-to-week anyway and you're going to get your best players when you can."
"We watched film on them (ECU) at 6:30 (Tuesday) morning. Their secondary, they've got a good safety, but their corners, I think we can win that matchup," said freshman wide receiver Erik Highsmith, who had an important contribution in last week's win at UConn.
One of the biggest keys for North Carolina against this veteran-laden ECU defense is to avoid third-and-long situations, which would really play into the Pirates' strengths and possibly set UNC up for some costly mistakes.
"If we can stay out of third-and-long, we'll be in good situations to protect the quarterback," said offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
The defensive players have been watching film as well all week on the Pirates, although freshman Donte Paige-Moss is already savvy enough to know that ECU will likely change up many of the things they've done in the first two games in an effort to throw off the Tar Heels.
"You can watch as much film as you want, but there's always going to be something different," said Moss. "I know they run the no-huddle, so we're going to be rotating a lot (of players in and out) and I've just got to suck it up. I can't get tired."
For many of the UNC veterans, Saturday's contest is payback, pure and simple.
The loss in Greenville back in '07 derailed what could have been a much quicker turn-around under Davis than many originally expected.
While the 4-8 Tar Heels lost several close games that fall, things could have been different had they pulled the one out over ECU, and this time around they're all about making sure things go differently.
"I think if we had won that game our season that first year would have been a lot different," said Williams. "It's definitely something that a lot of guys have in the back of their mind while we're playing them."
"We went down there two years ago and we lost a close one," said Yates. "I didn't know much about the rivalry between the two schools until we went down there. It's a big game for both of us, and it's kind of payback for us. They kind of stole one from us when we went down there."
"To be honest, the year that we lost of them, that was all on our minds, especially guys like Bruce Carter, Quan (Sturdivant)," Williams added. "It was our first loss as a unit, so it was kind of hard to express in words how that felt."
"We know they're going to come in here and just play extremely hard, because it is a very, very big rivalry for us, and the last game kind of set up this one," added Yates. "We're going to play extremely hard and we know they are. They're going to give us their best shot, and we've got to come out strong and play a lot better than we did last week."