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Game No. 3: UNC-CH 31, ECU 17


Inside Game Day
Saturday, September 19, 2009

By Al Myatt

Big odds tough to overcome

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

CHAPEL HILL — There are really three levels within the NCAA classification that used to be known as Division I.

There's the Football Championship Subdivision — with schools such as Appalachian State — and its scholarship limits.

Then there are two divisions within the Football Bowl Subdivision. There are the programs in conferences whose champions are assured inclusion in the Bowl Championship Series. Then there are programs such as East Carolina with its membership in Conference USA, whose only chance of climbing to the BCS level is to go undefeated and play a tough enough schedule to get a favorable rating from a myriad of computer rankings.

The Pirates have played one of the best FCS programs in recent years in App State and managed to hold on against the Mountaineers for a 29-24 win.

ECU then traveled to face two FBS/BCS programs on their home turf. The Pirates lost 35-20 to a deceptively-strong West Virginia team last week. There was a difference in talent and execution again as ECU was topped 31-17 at North Carolina on Saturday.

The BCS generates substantial revenue for its favored conferences, gets more media exposure, and BCS membership enhances recruiting. Those factors put programs like ECU's at a competitive disadvantage.

Perhaps some symbolism could be found in the fact that ECU coach Skip Holtz was locked out of the postgame interview area at Kenan Stadium, which also serves as a meeting area for the UNC-Chapel Hill lacrosse program.

The glass ceilings around the mid-major programs tend to lock schools such as ECU out of realistic contention against BCS programs with their superior resources. My apologies to the multitude of Pirate fans who chafe at being called mid-major but some disparities were readily apparent head to head against the Tar Heels.

"We're talking apples and oranges," said Appalachian coach Jerry Moore recently about programs such as his own, ECU's and the uppercrust of the FBS/BCS.

ECU had 18 starters returning from a 9-5 team that won Conference USA. North Carolina ranks fifth nationally for fewest seniors with 11. But a Tar Heels offense which struggled last week in a 12-10 win at Big East stronghold UConn, amassed 433 yards against an ECU defense that led C-USA last season.

Still, the Pirates were looking for a win against an in-state rival, not excuses.

"It's frustrating," said Holtz, once he had gained admission to the interview area in the old Kenan Stadium fieldhouse. "It's hard to lose, especially for this football team, which has such lofty goals for themselves and such high expectations — not only to be able to compete but to be able to come in and win.

"There is no moral victory in coming out of here and saying it was close or any of those type of things."

Maybe it wasn't a moral victory but the Pirates did manage to make it competitive.

The Tar Heels moved running back A.J. Blue under center on their second series and his fumble was recovered by the Pirates at the North Carolina 33. Brandon Jackson ran for 12 yards to the Tar Heel 12 on third down and Patrick Pinkney hit Jamar Bryant for a 7-yard score on third down with 7:07 left in the first quarter.

It took the Tar Heels just 2:16 to answer as they moved 60 yards in six plays to score on a 16-yard pass from T.J. Yates to Erik Highsmith to tie the score at 7.

"I thought our football team responded every time there was a challenge," said Tar Heels coach Butch Davis. "Every time (ECU) had some momentum or every time they made a score (we) came back."

The Tar Heels took a 14-7 lead on a 59-yard Yates pass to Jheranie Boyd, who got behind an ECU secondary that is missing Levin Neal and Emanuel Davis. Boyd bobbled the ball but latched on to it for the go-ahead score.

Dwayne Harris played big on ECU's ensuing series, hitting Joe Womack for a 35-yard gain on a reverse pass and going the last six yards on a keeper to complete a 77-yard drive that took just four plays and just 1:42 off the clock.

The Tar Heels broke the tie at 14 and went ahead to stay as Ryan Houston finished a 73-yard drive with a 1-yard run with 2:57 left in the half for a 21-14 lead.

The Pirates struggled to put points on the board in the second half although they did move the ball effectively at times. Time of possession was slightly in the Pirates favor for the game, 30:46 to 29:14.

"We got some things going on offensively and we put a couple of drives together," Holtz said. "But what we lacked as an offensive football team was some of the big plays and that was probably one of the real differences in the game.

"I think in the second half we had a 12- and 15-play drive that resulted in three points. That's a lot of offensive plays to only get three points on the board."

Holtz said he opted for a 22-yard field goal by Ben Hartman with 6:21 remaining rather than going for it on fourth-and-one at the North Carolina 5-yard line because he felt the Pirates needed to get within one score. Hartman, who kicked the game winner in Greenville against the Tar Heels in 2007, closed the gap to 24-17 with the first points the offense has produced in the second half this season.

ECU's window of opportunity closed quickly as Yates connected with Highsmith for 43 yards to spark a series that extended the lead to 31-17.

The North Carolina program appears to be on the upswing under Davis if the relative performances of the two teams Saturday are any indication.

ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney said he didn't have much time. Pinkney passed for 406 yards and three scores against the Tar Heels in 2007. Credit BCS resources as a factor in allowing an effective rebuilding job by the Heels since then.

Former Pirates coach Steve Logan pointed out the impact that joining a BCS conference had on the Virginia Tech program when the Hokies were admitted to the Big East. Virginia Tech went from being a competitive program to a national power.

Logan said the gap was only widening between BCS and non-BCS schools at the close of his tenure at ECU.

The good news for the Pirates is that Central Florida is on the horizon next week in Greenville. That's a league game and the Pirates will be on a level playing field — within their own division so to speak.

It will be apples and apples for a change.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

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09/20/2009 02:49:09 AM


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