No. 24 UNC (2-0) vs. ECU (1-1)

[12 p.m., Sept. 19, Kenan Memorial Stadium]


North Carolina vs. East Carolina. The coastal lifestyle vs. storied tradition. The battle between the true state mascot — the Tar Heels or the Pirates.

UNC’s offense took the heat this week after struggling to put up 10 points against an inferior Big East team. ECU, meanwhile, let West Virginia running back Noel Devine tally four rushing touchdowns in a 35-20 loss. West Virginia piled up over 500 offensive yards against the ECU defense.

Key stats: Just 16 — that’s how many total points UNC’s first two opponents scored. Granted, The Citadel is an FCS team but contrasting with ECU’s 59 total points allowed to App State and West Virginia should give you an idea of how this game can be won.

Defense — and more importantly turnovers — will play a heavy part in determining the winner Saturday. Carolina has been careless with the ball, coughing it up a total of six times in two games, while ECU’s only real shot against West Virginia was a result of the Mountaineers’ mistakes. West Virgina turned the ball over four times, including two muffed punt returns that set up the Pirates in the red zone.

Will UNC’s stingy defense thwart the Pirates, or will ECU capitalize on Carolina’s mistakes?

Best message board tidbit on the game: An exchange from ECU’s forum:

UNC fan: “It’s safe to say that ecu has never played an SEC like defense before so I was wondering what you guys think the pirates game plan might look like?”

From what I assume is a Virginia Tech fan: “I think [Patrick] Pinkney has been around for so many years he is looking forward to drawing social security and he is not focusing on the game anymore.”

UNC will win if … The offense regroups after the weak performance against UConn. Only 268 yards will not cut it against a feisty ECU team looking for blood.

The bad news is that UNC lacks starting center Lowell Dyer for the game. The good news is that the offensive line might have guard Jonathan Cooper back to help alleviate the blocking woes.

T.J. Yates must take care of the ball by not throwing careless interceptions. Carolina’s defense will do enough to get the offense favorable field position.

ECU will win if … Patrick Pinkney rekindles the magic from the past few seasons. Pinkney threw for over 400 yards against Carolina’s defense in 2007, and he led the Pirates past talented Virginia Tech and West Virginia teams in 2008.

So far this season, Pinkney’s numbers have dropped. He’s completing only 42 percent of his passes and — just like Yates — has thrown three interceptions already.

Pinkney must play well to compensate for Dominique Lindsay’s likely absence from the game, which will make an already uphill battle against UNC’s front seven even more daunting. If he does and ECU forces turnovers like it did against West Virginia, then UNC’s defense won’t compensate for a lackluster offense.

What people are saying about the game: ECU coach Skip Holtz on playing against Carolina: “Many of our players were told they weren’t good enough to play at North Carolina. This will be a game that they put a chip on their shoulders for.”

UNC student overheard on campus: “I’m more worried about catching something from ECU fans than our receivers catching balls.”

Vegas line (2-0): UNC (-8)

My prediction (2-0): UNC’s offensive performance against UConn makes it tempting to pick the Pirates … but this is not Holtz’s 2008 team. And this is not the same defense Pinkney obliterated through the air in Greenville a few seasons ago.

Carolina’s Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston will do enough on the ground to move the offense. Don’t be surprised to see Houston enter the game for a series or two early if Draughn struggles.

The loss of Lindsay will make it even more difficult for the Pirates to move the ball, and Pinkney will throw a costly interception or two while being harassed by Carolina’s defensive front.

But don’t expect this game to provide answers about UNC’s offense. The defense alone will be the difference between these two teams.

UNC 27, ECU 20

NCAA Football 10 simulation score (2-0): ECU 40, UNC 37 (3OT)

ECU key performance: Patrick Pinkney, 26-50, 306 yards, five touchdowns, two interceptions

UNC key performance: Greg Little, seven receptions, 153 yards, two touchdowns