The NC State Wolfpack and the East Carolina Pirates will renew their storied in-state rivalry Saturday afternoon at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to kick off the 2022 college football season.
This will be the first time since 2019 that the two schools separated by 83 miles have played each other. ECU is coming off its best season since 2014 as the team finished 7-5 and qualified for the Miltary Bowl before the Boston College Eagles withdrew from the game due to COVID-19 issues and the bowl was then canceled.
NC State enters this season ranked 13th in the AP Top 25 after going 9-3 last season, including a win over Clemson for the first time since 2011. The Wolfpack were set to play UCLA in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 28 before the Bruins withdrew hours before kickoff, also because of COVID-19 concerns.
Saturday will mark the 32nd meeting between the Wolfpack and the Pirates. NC State holds an 18-13 advantage in the series and has won two straight. However, East Carolina has won the last two matchups in Greenville.
No. 13 NC State at East Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
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Spread: NC State -11.5
When NC State Has the Ball
This is NC State head coach Dave Doeren's 10th year at the school, and he could have his best team yet, especially offensively. The Wolfpack are led by talented junior quarterback Devin Leary, who threw for 3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns, and just five interceptions last season.
At ACC Media Days in Charlotte this summer, Leary was voted as the conference preseason player of the year. Joining Leary is most of the team's offensive line from last season except standout left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, who was selected sixth overall by the Carolina Panthers in the 2022 NFL Draft.
In total, the Wolfpack return 10 starters on offense. East Carolina's defense, which finished 79th in the country last season (393.5 ypg), will be tested. But one thing the Pirates have going for them is a solid trio of starting linebackers in seniors Xavier Smith, Myles Berry, and junior Jeremy Lewis, who combined for 145 tackles last season.
When East Carolina Has the Ball
If ECU is going to pull off the upset at home, quarterback Holton Ahlers will need to have the game of his career. Last year, Ahlers passed for 3,126 yards and 18 touchdowns in 12 games. He also rushed for six touchdowns.
Joining Ahlers is an excellent backfield led by Keaton Mitchell and Rahjah Harris. Mitchell led the American Athletic Conference in rushing with 1,132 yards and also was second in all-purpose yards per game (116.2). Harris was second on the Pirates in rushing (579) and he scored five total touchdowns (four rushing).
ECU also returns two of its top receivers from last season in C.J. Johnson and Ryan Jones. They combined for 962 yards and six touchdowns in 2021.
The problem for the Pirates is that NC State's defense is among the best in the ACC, if not the country. The Wolfpack were third or higher in the conference in the four main defensive categories last season and finished 14th nationally in points (19.7) and 21st in yards (331.6) allowed per game. Ten starters return from this unit, including All-America candidates Payton Wilson and Drake Thomas at linebacker.
NC State fans and Doeren understand how difficult it is to win at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Wolfpack haven't won a game in Greenville since 2007 and despite being heavy favorites, East Carolina is expected to field its best team in the Mike Houston era.
Also, ECU has a history of playing well at home as underdogs, just ask the North Carolina Tar Heels. However, this is a different team the Pirates are facing, as the Wolfpack start the season ranked in the top 15 in the country.
ECU has the offensive talent to stay with NC State, but can the Pirates slow down Leary and company? That could be a tall order, even at home.
Prediction: NC State 34, East Carolina 31
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— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders, and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.