Nonconference football games always seem to have been significant at East Carolina. It is part of the university’s culture. The gridiron represents a proving ground in a broader quest for respect.
It began to be that way in 1970 when the Pirates played at N.C. State for the first time. ECU had emerged from battles in the state legislature for university status and a medical school in the 1960s.
The Pirates belonged to the Southern Conference at the time but the quest for growth transformed ECU from a small college program to an independent in 1977. There was no conference framework for a considerable period.
Every game was nonconference for a span equating to a couple of decades.
The Pirates competed as an independent until joining Conference USA in 1997. ECU’s league affiliation shifted to the American Athletic Conference in 2014, but the ventures outside the AAC continue to be huge.
Most schools meet their top rivals in league play, but games with North Carolina and N.C. State bring out the biggest crowds at ECU.
The nonconference matchups drive season ticket sales, impact recruiting and make the Pirates relevant in regard to their ACC neighbors.
The 2019 season opener at N.C. State on Aug. 31 incorporates elements of ECU’s past, present and future.
The Pirates also opened seasons in Raleigh against the Wolfpack in 1973, 1975, 1977, 1982, 1985, 1986 and 1987. ECU’s was 3-4 in those road matchups. After the Pirates won 32-14 in 1987, there was a melee as ECU fans took down goal posts. The teams didn’t play again until a Peach Bowl battle at the conclusion of the 1991 season produced a 37-34 Pirates win.
In 1996, the series resumed during the regular season with a 50-29 Pirates win in the last game of the year before a throng of 66,347 in Charlotte.
Severe weather resulted in the most recent ECU-State matchup and also will continue to impact the Pirates’ nonconference schedule this year. With Hurricane Florence bearing down last year, the Wolfpack had a home game with West Virginia canceled on Sept. 15. ECU bowed out of a game at Virginia Tech on the same date due to concerns about the storm’s potential effects on the region.
It was announced on Oct. 2 that the teams would play on Dec. 1 at Carter-Finley Stadium if neither was involved in its conference championship game.
Coach Scottie Montgomery was dismissed in the week before the trip to Raleigh and defensive coordinator David Blackwell was appointed interim coach. The Pirates were without freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers, who had moved into a starting role at midseason. Ahlers went out in a 56-6 loss at Cincinnati the previous week.
The Wolfpack dealt ECU a 58-3 defeat. A 53-yard run by Anthony Scott accounted for more than half of the Pirates’ total yards and set up a 46-yard field goal by Jake Verity as time expired to avoid the first shutout in the 30-game series.
Two days after ECU finished 3-9 for the third straight year, Mike Houston was named the new coach at ECU. Houston has an 80-25 record as a college head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison. Houston guided the Dukes to the Football Championship Subdivision title in 2016 and opened the following season with a 34-14 win at ECU.
James Madison started its last season under Houston with a 24-13 loss at State. Houston will coach a team in its season opener in Raleigh for the second straight year. Houston brought most of his JMU staff to Greenville.
The start of the Houston era at State will be seen as an opportunity for redemption for the Pirates after last season’s embarrassment. It is clearly a chance to set a tone going forward for the new leadership at ECU.
The Wolfpack will be dealing with some transitional factors, too. Quarterback Ryan Finley and running back Reggie Gallaspy were seniors. Finley threw for 409 yards and Gallaspy ran for 220 on Dec. 1. Also gone are receivers Jakobi Meyers and Kelvin Harmon, who opted for the NFL draft rather than play their senior seasons for the Pack. There are also significant graduation voids on the offensive line.
State offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz became head coach at Appalachian State before the Wolfpack lost 52-13 to Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl.
The back-to-back games with the Pack will be played under drastically different circumstances, which also could mean a different outcome. That is one of the intriguing aspects of the renewal of the rivalry as the Pirates go through their first spring practice under Houston. The Purple-Gold game is scheduled for April 13.
Week two in 2019 also will be special for ECU with a home game against Gardner-Webb. It will be the first contest at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with the renovations complete on the south side. The improvements include luxury boxes among the bells and whistles of a makeover approaching $60 million. The Bulldogs were 3-8 last season and 2-3 in the Big South Conference. The Pirates will be looking to avoid a third straight home loss to an FCS team on Sept. 7.
After the AAC opener at Navy on Sept. 14, ECU will be back home to take on William & Mary on Sept. 21. The Tribe, another FCS program, was a late addition to the schedule after Virginia Tech declined to play in Greenville in the cold war that has ensued since last year’s cancellation in Blacksburg.
The Pirates used to play William & Mary regularly. In 1977, former ECU coach Jim Johnson came off the sideline to bring down a Tribe ball carrier in a 21-17 Pirates loss at the Oyster Bowl in Norfolk. William & Mary was awarded the winning touchdown after Johnson surprised Tribe quarterback Tom Rozantz with an effective roll block.
A trip to Old Dominion on Sept. 28 will complete the nonconference regular season portion of the schedule. One compelling aspect of that contest in Norfolk is the Monarchs’ hiring of Blackwell as defensive coordinator. The ECU alumnus was well-liked among the players and certainly won’t lack for insight on opposing personnel. The Pirates managed a 37-35 win over ODU in Greenville in 2018.
In addition to the challenges of competing in the AAC, the 2019 schedule presents some matchups outside the league that certainly feature some interesting elements.
Prospects for improvement enhance the intrigue of the nonconference games.