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View from the 'ville
Thursday, October 18, 2007

By Al Myatt

Pirates the target in redefined rivalry

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

N.C. State will come into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday from beneath the North stands on the East end of Bagwell Field while East Carolina will make its grand entrance from the Murphy Center at the West end.

In a broader sense, the two combatants will arrive from opposite directions that go beyond the immediate geography of the stadium. The differences relate primarily to that wide chasm that separates winning and losing.

The Pirates have had to adjust from the jet lag of a 1,900-mile trip early Sunday morning following a 45-42 overtime win at Texas-El Paso. The dramatic conquest of the Miners extended ECU's winning streak to three games and kept them on top of Conference USA's East Division race.

ECU (4-3, 3-1 C-USA) may even have to suppress a tendency toward cockiness. The Pirates go into the game as 5 1/2-point favorites.

"When things are going well, it's easy to get confident and have a little swagger," said ECU coach Skip Holtz.

While the Bucs may be inclined to swagger, NCSU will just be trying to pick itself up and dust itself off.

In contrast to the Pirates' cross country haul, N.C. State had an open date last week. The Wolfpack has looked at its second excursion to Greenville and first since 1999 as an opportunity to make a fresh start.

The first six games under first-year coach Tom O'Brien have not provided the turnaround that was sought when Chuck Amato was dismissed following a 21-16 loss to the Pirates in Raleigh in State's 2006 season finale.

"We haven't really given ourselves a chance to win," O'Brien said. "The turnovers and giving up big plays — those are the things that have contributed to the 1-5 start.

"I told the team Thursday that the first half of the season is over. Let's come back refreshed, take one game at a time and see if we can get this thing turned around."

At 0-3 in the ACC, the Pack isn't likely to figure in the league race except as a spoiler. State is teetering on the brink of elimination from bowl eligibility.

While the Pack seeks a fresh start, the Pirates want to keep a good thing going.

Despite the differences, the game still has huge implications. How many teams at 1-5 can fill ECU's stadium? The matchup also is crucial in regional recruiting perceptions. And every Pirate fan who goes to church with State fans or works with Wolfpack supporters knows the desirability of bragging rights in the aftermath.

There are financial consequences as well. Pirate Club contributions can be expected to climb if ECU wins this weekend. Pirate paraphernalia will be jumping off the shelves at UBE if ECU extends its 2007 winning streak to four games.

While there is plenty on the line for the Pirates, there's also a lot at stake for State. The Pack used to belittle the series by saying it had too much to lose by playing ECU. Now, the cleats are on the other foot. It's ECU which has more to lose.

A State win would go a long way to soothing Pack egos in the early stages of the O'Brien era, but after demanding Amato's head last season the fan base has not been nearly as vocal in deriding his successor — even though the only win was against a strong Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, team.

The last two State coaches to lose to ECU haven't kept their job the following week, but O'Brien isn't on the hot seat. He will have more time to show better results.

Still, the Pack coach isn't approaching Saturday with anything less than a well-stated understanding of what a State-ECU game means. He said that bit of wisdom was generated at Wolfpack Club meetings after his arrival from Boston College.

"Anything with Carolina in it is a rival game here," O'Brien said.

State has a 14-10 lead in the series, which started in 1970, but the Pirates have won four of the last six. ECU is 7-13 in Raleigh, 1-0 at home against State and 2-1 at neutral sites, including the thrilling 37-34 victory in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta to cap the 1991 season.

Take away State's 4-0 record in the Lou Holtz era and the series would be even. His son, of course, is doing his best to turn the tables. And, of course, the Holtz family isn't the only one with dual connections when it comes to ECU and State. That's the way it is with neighboring rivals.

The teams have dual quarterbacks in common. Daniel Evans started the season for State and was replaced by Harrison Beck in the second game. Beck was knocked out of action with a separated shoulder in a 29-10 loss to Louisville on Sept. 29. He has been cleared medically for the ECU game but his playing status depends on O'Brien's evaluation.

The Pirates have actually had four players take snaps this season but Rob Kass and Patrick Pinkney have emerged as the prime time players. Pinkney shone brilliantly as he threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 win over North Carolina. Kass came to ECU's rescue like a caped superhero at the conclusion of last week's trip to the Lone Star state.

"A lot will be predicated on the game plan and what they will do defensively," Holtz said in regard to his quarterbacks. "Against UTEP, we were struggling a little bit so we decided to put Patrick in. He is still alive in the rotation. Rob will start but Patrick will play based on the flow of the game and their defense."

Both teams have faced strong challenges. ECU's strength of schedule currently ranks 19th nationally in the Sagarin ratings. State is a notch behind at No. 20. Holtz respects that dimension of the Pack's struggles.

"N.C. State is a 1-5 football team but don't let the record fool you," said the Pirates coach. "If we had played their schedule, we could have easily had the same record. They've played teams like Louisville, Clemson and Florida State."

The only common opponent is Central Florida, which enjoyed healthy halftime leads against both the Pack and the Pirates. The Knights led 25-3 after 30 minutes and held on for a 25-23 win in Raleigh to spoil O'Brien's debut. ECU rallied with a string of defensive takeaways to erase a 28-17 deficit at the break for a 52-38 win over UCF in Greenville on Oct. 6.

Holtz was a youngster in Raleigh when his dad and current ESPN college football analyst Lou Holtz was coaching N.C. State from 1972 to 1975. The Pack went 4-0 against the Pirates in four games in Raleigh during that span, outscoring ECU by a combined margin of 145-47, including a 57-8 thrashing in 1973.

Perhaps those days have given the younger Holtz some historical perspective.

"This game is huge because of the natural rivalry that exists between the schools," said the ECU coach. "It is healthy for both schools, given the geographical distance between here and Raleigh. I told the team that we won seven games a year ago but had no championships to show for it nationally, conference-wise or even in the bowl."

But state championships count, too, according to Holtz.

"We want to build this program on championships," he said. "The 'State Championship' is one we have to win and we are in what is essentially a one-game playoff.

"This game has implications in recruiting and image, so it is more than just another win or loss in the record books. It is important to the alumni and fan base that fills our stadium.

"The N.C. State-East Carolina alumni base is so intertwined and there are a lot of bragging rights at stake."

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10/18/2007 02:42:31 AM


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