By Bill Woodward
CHAPEL HILL, NC September 28, 2013 - East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill was a senior defensive back at Lumberton High School back in 1975 when the Pirates rolled past North Carolina 38-17 at Kenan Stadium.
East Carolina hadn’t won at UNC since that year – until Saturday.
McNeill came to ECU as a player in 1976 and came close to getting a victory three times in Chapel Hill – East Carolina losing 12-10 to the Tar Heels in 1977, 14-10 in 1978 and tying the Heels 24-24 in 1979 when McNeill was a senior.
McNeill finally got his victory in Kenan Stadium – and the Pirates did it in historic fashion. Fueled by an offense that was clicking from the beginning of the game and rolled to 603 yards, the 12 1/2-point underdog Pirates routed the Tar Heels 55-31.
The total offense was the second highest ever recorded by an UNC opponent in Kenan Stadium, and the 55 points were the most ever by the Pirates in the series. Running back Vintavious Cooper rushed for a career-high 186 yards and led the Pirates with 70 receiving yards, also a career high.
Pirates quarterback Shane Carden threw for three touchdowns and 376 yards, while also running for three short TDs on a day when the offense was in high gear from beginning to end.
The 86 combined points were the most in the history of the series and East Carolina’s 101 plays (a school record) were the most ever by a UNC opponent.
But this game was about much more that numbers. Emotionally, for the players, coaches and cluster of purple-clad fans in one corner of the sold-out stadium, it was off the charts.
The post-game celebration told the story. There were hugs all around between the coaches and players. Carden going into the stands and doing an impromptu stint as bandleader as the alma mater was being played and East Carolina chancellor Steve Ballard visiting the locker room after the game.
It was euphoria, dressed in purple and black as the Pirates wore their all-black uniforms for the second time this season.
“Having played in this game, it’s special,” McNeill said. “It’s always an intense, hard-hitting game. I had a flashback of me trying to tackle Famous Amos (Lawrence). In-state games are big. The rivalry is there. The coaching side of me wanted to win for the kids. We know this is a big win. It was a big win for those kids in that room.”
Coming on the heels of a tough, 15-10 loss to Virginia Tech two weeks ago, it was even sweeter for the Pirates.
“It had been a long two weeks for our group,” McNeill continued. “(The) Virginia Tech loss, we took it hard as a football team. After the game, I said that the toughest locker room I’ve been a part of.
“I liked that locker room today. That’s a happy locker room there. This is a big win, and again, for the players. It’s about the kids. If the kids win, then the program wins. If the program wins, the university wins.”
It was McNeill’s second victory over an ACC team. He won against NC State in overtime in 2010, but this one didn’t need any extra time.
The Pirates (3-1) set the tone early, driving 73 yards with the opening kickoff to go up 7-0. It was 21-3 five minutes into the second quarter and the Heels (1-3) never recovered.
“(It was) a very disappointing performance by the Tar Heels today,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “It was hard for me to find something positive from the sidelines.”
The Tar Heels coach cited missed tackles, penalties and a lack of continuity by his offense. But he also gave credit to the Pirates.
“I told Ruffin before the game this is by far his best team,” Fedora added. “You know, he’s in year four, he’s got his guys in there. They understand what he’s trying to do and they believe in what he’s doing, and they are playing like that.”
With Cooper grinding out the yards on the ground and finding room to run after catching short passes, the East Carolina offense was in near perfect balance – running 54 rushing plays and 47 passing plays.
“We wanted to be balanced,” Carden said. “We did a great job of stretching the field and we did a good job of running the ball. I thought our offensive line did a great job. They played physical in both the passing game and the running game. I had plenty of time back there all day long.”
A year ago, North Carolina had seven sacks against East Carolina in a 27-6 victory. Saturday, the Heels had none.
“I thought up front we did a good job,” McNeill said. “I thought we played well offensively and defensively in the line. Our offensive line, those guys did a great job. We did a good job of establishing the run with Tay (Cooper). Obviously, that was good to have that balance.”
EAST CAROLINA PIRATES FOOTBALL TICKETS
East Carolina led 28-10 at halftime and scored first in the second half to lead 35-10. The Tar Heels had three touchdown drives in the second half of two minutes or less, but East Carolina’s offense always had an answer – the Pirates just kept putting points on the scoreboard.
“We looked at the film (after Virginia Tech) and knew how much better we could play,” Carden said. “Everyone was on the same page, everybody was playing hard. The tempo was great. That was something that was great all spring and going into the season. But it had kind of been lacking. We really picked it up this week.
“The offense was just clicking.”
And, in the end, there were smiles all around – something not seen in a long time by East Carolina players, coaches and fans at Kenan Stadium.
“This one is for Pirate Nation,” Carden said. “There were some in our own university who didn’t have a lot of faith in us going into this week. But we always did. We just played our hearts out.
“We go into each week saying that each week is important. But obviously this one is different. There is a lot of rivalry between the two schools for the fans. This is a special win for this program. I told Coach Ruff this one was for him. He is a great coach, a great father figure. He deserved this one.”
For Justin Hardy, a junior from West Craven High who knows all about the rivalry, it was about bragging rights.
“Having them be in state (makes it special),” Hardy added. “They kind of look down on us. For us to come in here and get this win, it was real big for us.”
McNeill was given the game ball by his players after the emotional victory. It was going home to his dad, Ruffin McNeill Sr., in Lumberton, the coach said.
“Dad will be 80 next month,” McNeill said. “He’s been the biggest influence on my life.”
An appropriate destination for the game ball from one of the biggest wins in East Carolina football history.