East Carolina is stepping away from its pursuit of a league championship to focus on beating another instate rival from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Pirates (8-2) travel to North Carolina State on Saturday in the first of two road games to close the regular season. Beating the struggling Wolfpack (3-7) would mark East Carolina's fifth straight win and send Ruffin McNeill's squad into next week with even more momentum as it plays for a trip to the Conference USA championship game.
While this week's trip to Raleigh won't factor into that title chase, safety Damon Magazu said his team is keeping a simple focus.
"It's the next one on our schedule," Magazu said. "It could be a conference game and everybody would treat it the same way. ... When you get out of that and start focusing on future games, that's when you mess up and start losing."
East Carolina already has a lopsided win at North Carolina this season, a 55-31 rout that marked the Pirates' first win in Chapel Hill since 1975. Beating N.C. State on Saturday would mark a second road win against a BCS league opponent this year and ECU's first at Carter-Finley Stadium since 2006.
At this point, the Wolfpack desperately needs a win against anybody.
First-year coach Dave Doeren has seen a young team struggle offensively and battle injuries. N.C. State has lost six straight games, hasn't won a game in nearly two months and hasn't scored more than 21 points since beating Central Michigan on Sept. 28.
It's the first bowl-less season for the program since 2009.
"I don't feel like (the seniors) have nothing to play for," Doeren said. "All these guys are playing for the university. They know what State has done for them. We've talked about that. They also have ambitions of playing at the next level. Nobody at the next level wants a kid that quits, I can tell you that. They've got a lot to play for."
Here are five things to watch in Saturday's East Carolina-N.C. State game:
FAILING TO FINISH: N.C. State has been within one possession entering the final quarter in four games during the six-game skid. Doeren's Wolfpack must reverse that trend if this game is close entering the final period. "We haven't been able to make the plays to sustain or overcome the fourth quarter to this point," Doeren said.
PIRATES' MOTIVATION: The Pirates are taking a timeout from their C-USA title pursuit, but they're on course for the program's first 10-win season since going 11-1 in 1991. ECU's chip-on-the-shoulder fans also savor opportunities to beat the power-conference Tar Heels and Wolfpack so the Pirates should be ready.
CARDEN'S TIME: When the Pirates have protected quarterback Shane Carden, he's put up big numbers. When they didn't, they lost. East Carolina surrendered seven sacks in its home loss to Virginia Tech and six more in an overtime loss at Tulane. In the past two games, Carden has thrown 10 touchdown passes while ECU has allowed just three sacks.
STOPPING THE PASS: N.C. State ranks third in the ACC in pass defense by allowing 209.7 yards per game. That unit will be tested by Carden and receiver Justin Hardy, who has had either 100 yards receiving or a TD catch for seven straight games.
STARTING UP THORNTON: N.C. State's Shadrach Thornton has developed into a reliable rushing threat for the Wolfpack, but the running back got just 11 carries in last week's loss at Boston College. N.C. State would help itself to get Thornton running early and often against ECU to keep the Pirates' offense on the sideline and build some confidence for a struggling offense.
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