UNC-ECU clash pits desperate teams, coaches

Larry Fedora is trying to help the Tar Heels regain footing, while the Pirates’ Scottie Montgomery is already fighting for his job

Cal’s Elijah Hicks breaks up a pass intended for UNC receiver Dyami Brown during the Bears’ 24-17 win Saturday. (D. Ross Cameron / AP Photo)

When the Tar Heels visit Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to play East Carolina on Saturday, it won’t just be a football game between in-state rivals looking to bounce back from disappointing opening-week losses.

It could also turn out to be a battle for professional survival for the two opposing coaches.

The Pirates’ Scottie Montgomery, in particular, is squarely on the hot seat after consecutive 3-9 seasons and an ugly home loss to NC A&T to start 2018, the second straight season his team has lost to an FCS opponent in its opener.

His counterpart Larry Fedora isn’t on as shaky ground after going 3-9 a year ago amid an epidemic of injuries. But given Fedora’s controversial preseason comments about the effects of concussions and recent recruiting losses to NC State’s Dave Doeren, a UNC loss to ECU won’t do anything to enhance his status among an increasingly frustrated fan base.

UNC opened its season with a loss at California last Saturday in which quarterback Nathan Elliott threw four interceptions, including a pick-six that ended up being the difference in a 24-17 setback.

Needless to say, this week’s game is important for both teams — and both coaches.

“Yes, there’s no question about it. We’re not going to run from it,” Montgomery said Monday at his regular weekly press conference. “Right now, we’re both in a similar situation, both us and UNC. Everybody is going to direct their attention to this football game, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

“Every single coach that you ask, the game that they’re coaching is the most critical one of their careers. But this one, for all of the reasons that are connected to it, is very critical for our career.”

Fedora steered clear of his own situation during his session with the media on Monday in Chapel Hill. But he did acknowledge the importance of a game that, in the shorter term, will likely dictate the direction for the rest of this season.

He also stressed that he and his Tar Heels aren’t going to take ECU lightly based on last week’s result. That’s probably a good idea, considering that the Pirates have won the last four meetings against in-state ACC opponents UNC and NC State. That includes a 70-41 drubbing of the Tar Heels the last time they visited Dowdy-Ficklen in 2014.

“We don’t take it easy on them because we lost a game,” Fedora said. “We’re going to learn from our mistakes one way or the other, and so you would like to learn from those mistakes with a win. It’s a better feeling than doing it the other way.”

Despite the disappointing losses, both teams were able to take something positive from their opening game performances.

First and foremost is that most of the mistakes that cost each the game were self-inflicted.

That’s especially true for ECU, which drove into the red zone seven times against A&T but only came away with two touchdowns. Twice, the Pirates turned the ball over inside the Aggies’ 5-yard line, including a Reid Herring interception that was returned 100 yards for a touchdown and changed the momentum of the game.

ECU outgained A&T 382-267, had possession of the ball 7½ minutes longer than its opponent and, as Fedora noted, dominated virtually every other statistical category except the scoreboard.

“It looked like they had every opportunity to win the game,” the UNC coach said. “Defensively, they played well, so I’m sure they feel good about that.”

Fedora’s Tar Heels can also feel good about the way their much-maligned defense played throughout the game and for the fourth quarter rally they staged after falling behind 17-0 at halftime while looking listless on offense for the game’s first 45 minutes.

Elliott was 15 for 35 passing for 137 yards, a touchdown and those four interceptions — an inefficiency Fedora chalked up to a combination of poor execution and some shoddy line play up front that put the quarterback under too much pressure. To the junior’s credit, he bounced back to lead UNC to a pair of late touchdowns that at least made things interesting at the end.

“I thought the North Carolina-Cal game was pretty similar to some of the things that we went through,” Montgomery said. “(UNC was) in situations where they could have won that football game a lot of different ways. Turnovers hurt them.

“This is going to be a tough opponent for us, and we’re looking forward to the challenge because they are the Tar Heels. I’m sure that they will grow between game one and game two, as we will. We will see a lot of differences from both teams moving forward.”

With the Tar Heels having to deal with jet lag after returning from a cross-country flight in the early hours of Sunday morning and the Pirates having to play a day later than expected because of a lightning storm that postponed their game until Sunday afternoon, both teams will be working on a shorter week than usual.

The good news is that neither will be at a disadvantage in their preparation for such an important game.

“It backs up everything,” Fedora said. “It just gives you less time to prepare. So for them, it’s the same way. Playing a day later gives them less time to prepare, so we’re both in the same boat.”