ACC Football Preview: North Carolina at East Carolina
GREENVILLEó From the time Ruffin McNeill took over at his alma mater, East Carolina has thrived by throwing the ball and pressuring opponents to defend the entire field.
Now, with instate rival North Carolina arriving to play in front of a rowdy sellout crowd Saturday night, the Pirates are hoping to find some balance to help that passing attack.
The Pirates (1-2) are coming off a win against UAB in which they ran for 181 yards, led by the best performance by a running back in just more than a season under McNeill. Developing a solid rushing attack for the second straight week could prove critical against the Tar Heels (3-1), whose defense limited the Pirates to one of their worst offensive showings in last year’s meeting.
“We throw the football for a living and everyone knows that, but it’s always good to have that balance,” McNeill said. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley “and I will talk and say, ‘Let’s call plays that make yardage for us.’ If it’s the pass, let’s continue to call those plays. If it’s the run, let’s continue with that.”
While McNeill makes it sound simple, East Carolina has often been unwilling or unable to consistently run the ball. Dominique Davis threw for nearly 4,000 yards in one of Conference USA’s best passing attacks last year, but the Pirates ranked 10th out of 12 teams by averaging 119 yards rushing on a league-low 27.5 attempts per game. That lack of a running threat became glaring when the offense had three-and-outs that kept throwing one of the nation’s worst defenses back on the field.
In the six games the Pirates have run at least 30 times under McNeill, they’ve won four with one loss coming in overtime.
“It definitely makes them dangerous if they can get the ball to the back and run the ball,” North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers said. “I think the short passing game, the bubbles, the quick passes are part of their run game and that’s just a matter of leveraging and tackling those. I think if they can do those things effectively, then they’ve got a better chance of being successful ó and we’ve got to eliminate those plays.”
The Pirates ran for 85 yards in the opening loss to South Carolina followed by minus-15 yards ó the second fewest in program history ó the next week against Virginia Tech. But junior college transfer Reggie Bullock ran for 169 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, marking only the fourth time an ECU player had cracked the 100-yard mark and the first time one had 20 carries under McNeill.
East Carolina running backs coach Clay McGuire said he tells his running backs they can be “the X-factor in this offense.”
“It’s one of those deals where if we’re running for 100 yards, a defensive coordinator has to change his game plan to stop the run,” McGuire said. “No defensive coordinator out there is going to let you run the football. When they start putting that sixth and seventh guy (in the box), then all of a sudden those short passes go from 4- or 5-yard completions to 10 or 15 yards.”
The Tar Heels ranked as one of the nation’s best run defenses through the first few weeks, but they allowed 312 yards on the ground to Georgia Tech’s triple-option rushing attack in last weekend’s 35-28 loss. It will be a significant adjustment moving from the Yellow Jackets’ run-run-run offense to the Pirates air-it-out attack.
“I think (the toughest part) is just the quick throws,” UNC defensive end Quinton Coples said. “We’re probably going to be in coverage and play off a little bit. As a defensive lineman, it’s not getting frustrated with not getting to the quarterback and making a sack.”
The Tar Heels had plenty of success defensively in last year’s meeting, intercepting Davis three times and returning one for a touchdown while holding the Pirates to a season-low 17 points. North Carolina helped itself by running for 222 yards in the second half to keep East Carolina’s offense on the sideline.
If the Pirates find similar success on the ground, they could become even tougher to slow through the air.
“When you’ve got to stop both,” Bullock said, “it’s impossible to do.”