East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden knows the best way for the Pirates to earn national attention — beat the big names that annually appear on their nonconference schedule.
The Pirates certainly are doing that against the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Last weekend's upset of then-No. 17 Virginia Tech marked the third straight win for the Pirates against ACC teams, all coming on the road in the last year. Next up is Saturday's visit from instate rival North Carolina, a team the Pirates blew out last year to start the current streak against one of the five power conferences.
"You've got to win these games," Carden said. "If you want respect around the nation, if you want respect from the bigger conferences, you've got to win these games. And that's what we want."
The game closes another demanding nonconference slate for the Pirates (2-1) ahead of their first season in the American Athletic Conference. Coming off the program's first 10-win season since 1991, East Carolina opened with an easy win against North Carolina Central then played tough in a 33-23 loss at then-No. 21 South Carolina.
Last week, the Pirates ran out to a 21-0 lead, saw the Hokies rally to tie it late in the fourth before answering with a last-second touchdown drive for a 28-21 win.
Now they're preparing to face the Tar Heels (2-0) in front of a sellout home crowd, which will be eager for the chance to stick it to one of the spotlight-grabbing instate ACC programs like UNC and North Carolina State.
Last year, the Pirates beat the Tar Heels 55-31 for their first win in Chapel Hill since 1975. They dominated all day and rolled to 603 total yards, a performance that UNC safety Tim Scott said this week left the Tar Heels "embarrassed on our home field."
Two months later, the Pirates cruised to a 42-28 win against N.C. State in Raleigh.
East Carolina has played at least two ACC teams in four of coach Ruffin McNeill's five seasons with his alma mater, winning four of those games.
It is part of an aggressive nonconference scheduling plan — launched in 2005 under former athletic director Terry Holland — that gave the Pirates more chances at reputation-boosting wins and toughened them for play in their former Conference USA home, where they won two championships.
In these games, McNeill said, his players have focused on doing their job and making the routine play regardless of who is on the other sideline.
"If we had just began this week preaching that, I'd be worried," McNeill said. "But we've been doing it. Now I've got a group who has been through it for five years, and they've passed it on to the ones that have been here for four years, to three and two and so on."
The scheduling plan won't change, either. The Pirates have more games scheduled against Virginia Tech, UNC, North Carolina State and South Carolina, and are adding dates with BYU, West Virginia and Florida.
"That's just kind of our mentality at ECU, that we've got a chip on our shoulder," Carden said. "We don't care who we're going to play, we'll go out there and play them hard."
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