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View from the 'ville
Thursday, September 17, 2009

By Al Myatt

Davis, Holtz take the high road

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

The tendency of the fanbases at East Carolina and North Carolina may be to deride one another going into their noon football game Saturday at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

The institutions have a history of conflict dating back to the 1960s and '70s when a battle to establish a medical school in Greenville was successfully waged in the state legislature by East Carolina Teachers College alumnus Robert B. Morgan. Morgan went on to serve as state attorney general, U.S. Senator and director of the State Bureau of Investigation.

Morgan characterized his role as that of foot soldier for Dr. Leo Jenkins, an ex-Marine who was then-East Carolina College's president at the time. After getting the initial phase of the medical school approved, Jenkins soon pushed for university status for East Carolina. Another bitter battle ensued that strained relationships between the two institutions for future generations.

Pirate fans can chant "ECU" with pride and vigor thanks to the forefathers who overcame opposition to the concept of the institution Down East moving beyond its designation as a college.

A proposed dental school in Greenville has resurrected some of the historical conflict between East Carolina and North Carolina.

The Tar Heels have been cast in the role of tyrants from the Pirate perspective. ECU has continued to challenge UNC-Chapel Hill's king of the hill position in the state university system.

Dr. Jenkins saw football as a means of advancement for East Carolina, one that could help raise his university's profile, elevate its self-perception, and put the Pirates in a position of conquest on the major college level.

In simple terms, the Tar Heels are the haves, the affluent, the establishment. The Pirates are the downtrodden, the huddled masses yearning to emerge in their own right and secure a better way of life for their region through improved educational opportunities.

The North Carolina-East Carolina football series, which started in 1972, has developed against that backdrop of off-the-field conflict, a manifestation of the animosity that has existed between the two institutions politically. The series was dormant from 1981 to 2001, when the threat of legislative action led to its resumption.

There are North Carolina fans who resent the pending intrusion on their domain. They harbor the sentiment that the Pirates must be put in their place. There are ECU fans who see the matchup as an opportunity to strike a blow against a ruthless oppressor.

There apparently will be no locker room bulletin board material emanating from coaches Butch Davis of the Tar Heels or Skip Holtz of the Pirates along the lines of those historical stereotypes. Based on their evaluations this week, their offensive coordinators do face some huge challenges.

"Defense is the strength of this football team," Holtz said of the Tar Heels. "They have nine returning starters from last year, five of them we played against us here two years ago. It's not that their only year starting is last year; they've been starting for two years. There are some really good players in the bunch.

"The defense has only given up 174.5 yards per game, 10.5 first downs per game, eight points a game, 14 percent conversion rate on third down, which is unheard of, and 1.9 yards per rush. This is a very good defensive football team. They remind me a lot of the Virginia Tech team we played two years ago that finished No. 1 in the country in total defense.

"It starts with the front four, who all return. Marvin Austin is an absolute beast. He's a great player who beats blocks frequently. Robert Quinn on the perimeter is all over the field. We thought our tackles were challenged last week? (35-20 ECU loss at West Virginia) They're really going to be challenged this week with the pressure their defensive ends can bring off the perimeter. The front line is so big, strong and athletic. Our offensive line is going to have a heck of a challenge this week.

"Quan Sturdivant in the middle is a big, fast, physical, hard-nosed football player. I've really been impressed with him. He has been all over the field, especially last week against Connecticut (12-10 UNC-CH win). You can really tell he has taken a leadership role. He's a great player.

"When you look in the secondary, Charles Brown [is] their lockdown corner. I don't see a lot of weaknesses in this defense. They're going to play man coverage, get after you and put pressure on you. At the end of Saturday's game against Connecticut, when Connecticut did an onside kick and recovered it, Connecticut got to about midfield and North Carolina just came after them. Then Connecticut started going backwards. This defense is going to be a heck of a challenge."

Davis wasn't any less glowing in his appraisal of the Pirates.

"When we looked at the schedule, we knew each week was going to be a bigger challenge and a more physically-gifted football team," said the Tar Heels coach. "Certainly, East Carolina presents that. It's probably one of the more mature, older, experienced veteran teams in the entire country.

"They return 17 fifth-year seniors, which in and of itself is a significant challenge for a young football team. They had a lot of success. They're defending Conference USA champions from a year ago. They're very physically gifted. They've got an outstanding defense.

"Their defensive line are all NFL quality-type players."

Both teams will be seeking to bolster sporadic offensive production in last week's games.

To hear the coaches, we may be looking at a showdown between placekickers in overtime if both defenses play as staunchly as stated. Tendencies at this point in the season are not clearly defined. Some foresaw South Carolina's game last week at Georgia as a certain defensive struggle but the Bulldogs had to hold on in a shootout.

Both the Pirates and Tar Heels, ranked No. 19 in the coaches poll, have some injury issues to address with running back Dominique Lindsay sidelined for ECU and the loss of the Heels' starting center forcing adjustments up front.

Both programs stand to spend a lot of emotion on Saturday, a week before each initiates league play.

"The challenge escalates that much more this week for a number of reasons," Holtz said. "It's an in-state game that is very emotional for our players, fan base and alumni. With the North Carolina and East Carolina fan bases being so intertwined, there's an awful lot that goes into this game emotionally."

The Pirates won 34-31 in the last meeting in 2007 as Ben Hartman connected on a 39-yard, game-ending field goal in Greenville. ECU not only needs a win in the nationally-televised contest (ESPN2) for bragging rights and any sort of historical justification for its constituents but to avoid a total lack of momentum going into next week's C-USA opener against Central Florida in Greenville.

"Our players know that East Carolina is going to come in here and want very, very badly to knock us off," said North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour.

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09/17/2009 03:33 AM


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