North Carolina and East Carolina both suffered through miserable, 3-9 seasons in 2017 and the two programs looked forward to putting that in the past as this season commenced. But the Tar Heels and the Pirates both opened 2018 with a loss, though the defeats were different and mirrored each team’s fortunes of last fall.
The hard-luck Heels, down 24-3 in the fourth quarter to the California, made a furious charge at the end of the game. When Anthony Ratliff-Williams recovered an on-side kick with just over a minute left, Carolina was in position to score a tying touchdown. But a questionable illegal block call negated the recovery and the Bears held on for a 24-17 victory.
Meanwhile, an ECU team that lost its season-opener last season to FCS opponent James Madison did it again when the Pirates were beaten by North Carolina A&T. The Pirates hope the loss to the Aggies was an aberration because head coach Scottie Montgomery does not need a repeat of 2017, a season which saw East Carolina lose seven games by 24 or more points.
North Carolina leads the series 12-4-1 and last played the Pirates in 2014.
North Carolina at East Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: North Carolina -16
Three Things to Watch
1. Limiting mistakes
That North Carolina was able to make things interesting at the end was a borderline miracle considering that quarterback Nathan Elliott threw four interceptions and as a team the Heels committed 13 penalties for 124 yards. East Carolina wasn’t much better, turning the ball over three times, including twice at the North Carolina A&T two-yard line. One of the turnovers was an interception that was returned 100 yards for a score by the Aggies. Plus, there was a lack of cohesion in running final plays near the end of the game. Simply put, there’s a lot to clean up for both teams.
2. Nathan Elliott must improve
One way Carolina can have a more efficient offense is to get better play from its quarterback. It wasn’t just the four picks that Elliott threw, though that was a major problem. He was also 15 of 35 for just 137 yards. There were some positive signs from the Tar Heels' signal-caller at the end, like a key fourth-down run to keep the first touchdown drive alive and five big completions — including a touchdown throw to Ratliff-Williams — that gave UNC a chance. With Chazz Surratt suspended for the next three games, there are few other good options so Elliott must elevate his game going forward.
3. ECU Rushing Attack
Or lack thereof. The Pirates were 119th in the nation in rushing offense last year and the issues continued against North Carolina A&T. While the Aggies are not a pushover, an AAC team should be able to run for more than 68 yards against any FCS program. As a result, quarterback Reid Herring was asked to do too much in his first collegiate start, throwing 65 times on the day. Whether it’s Trace Christian or Anthony Scott or Hussein Howe, one of the running backs is going have to balance out the ECU offense against a North Carolina defense that has had trouble stopping the run in past years, but was fairly solid out in Berkeley against Cal.
At this point in time, despite the poor 2017 records and the losses in week one, these two teams are not all that similar. Through all the injuries last season, North Carolina continued to battle in defeat and the Tar Heels fought to the bitter end this past Saturday. East Carolina, on the other hand, appears to be a team that lacks focus, something that was evident during the team’s final drive against North Carolina A&T. The UNC defense stifled the Cal passing attack and if East Carolina again struggles running the ball, the Pirates will have trouble putting points on the board. The Tar Heels don’t have an explosive offense, but Nathan Elliott will value the ball more and get it in the hands of his true playmaker, Anthony Ratliff-Williams. When UCF comes to Chapel Hill next week, the Knights will be facing a 1-1 North Carolina squad.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, East Carolina 13
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.