East Carolina was a 16½-point underdog against North Carolina on Saturday, so technically its 41-19 drubbing of the Tar Heels at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was an upset.
But anyone familiar with the dynamic of the rivalry between the Pirates and either of its UNC System cousins from the Triangle knows that the result was anything but a surprise.
In fact, it was almost as predictable.
Nothing brings out the best in ECU more than the opportunity to knock UNC, N.C. State and their respective fan bases down a peg, while in the process proving to them that the Pirates are worthy of their respect and attention.
Saturday’s win was ECU’s fifth straight against the Tar Heels and Wolfpack dating back to 2014, games it has won by a combined margin of 241-149.
According to senior offensive guard Garrett McGhin, the secret to that success isn’t much of a secret at all.
“We never get credit for anything we do and you have teams like that, that come in here and think they’re going to beat you no matter what the circumstances are,” McGhin said after the badly needed victory. “There’s a special place in my heart beating Carolina and State at home.”
The emotional celebration in front of the student section that followed the game showed that McGinn isn’t the only one who feels that way. Even coach Scottie Montgomery let his guard down and admitted that the win was the most satisfying of his shaky two-plus seasons in Greenville.
The question now is, why can’t the Pirates generate the same kind of passion, focus and execution they have against the Tar Heels and Wolfpack whenever they’re matched up against anyone else on their schedule?
While they’re 5-0 against those in-state opponents since 2014, they’re just 16-30 in the rest of their games.
None of the players that were made available to the media Saturday had a definitive answer when asked what their team needs to do to end that disparity. But it’s a riddle Montgomery will have to solve if he wants to make good on his guarantee of bowl eligibility and extend his tenure past the current season.
The most logical step in that direction is learning how to treat every game with the same kind of urgency and importance as those against UNC and State. That won’t be easy, considering the personal nature the rivalries take on for Pirates such as wide receiver Trevon Brown.
“That was my dream school,” Brown said of the Tar Heels, still clutching the game ball he earned for catching four passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. “They said I wasn’t good enough, so I want to prove to them every chance I can that I am good enough.”
Montgomery has his share of history with the UNC and State as well, having graduated from Duke.
“I love beating the Tar Heels,” he said.
But as much as he enjoyed inflicting some pain on the team in baby blue, he was already putting it behind him by the time he met with the media for his postgame press conference.
“It’s time to get back to work,” he said.
That’s a sound strategy considering that the next two games are on the road against nationally-ranked Virginia Tech and American Athletic Conference power South Florida.
Montgomery and his staff definitely put in some work in the days following their team’s disappointing opening week loss to N.C. A&T.
They emphasized ball security and it paid off in a turnover-free performance. They recommited their effort to be more balanced on offense and ended up rushing for 290 yards. They put in some new wrinkles, most notably the “Wildcat” package that featured freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers and made the Pirates much more efficient in the red zone.
Defensively, new coordinator David Blackwell’s influence continued to show with another strong effort — one that produced the first scoreless half by an opponent since the first game Montgomery coached, three seasons ago against Western Carolina.
It was, in the coach’s words, “an all-around great game.”
But it was only one game and there’s still a lot of work to be done to get ECU’s once-proud program headed back in the right direction. The trick now is to back Saturday’s performance up by playing that way week-in-and-week out — even when UNC or N.C. State isn’t on the schedule.