I've said it before and I will say it again until I'm blue in the face - other than beating their in-state rivals UNC and NSCU - there is nothing the East Carolina Pirates want more than to beat South Carolina. And the joy they take beating the Cocks isn't that far behind whipping up on the Heels or the Pack. Don't believe me? Ask a Pirate fan.
Trying to scalp Clemson would be up there for the Buccaneers too, except that the Tigers won't schedule ECU. Neither will Wake Forest or Duke - though I'd wager that the men from Greenville, North Carolina have long since eclipsed the Blue Devils on the gridiron, and likely have passed Wake, too. Besides West Virginia and Virginia Tech, South Carolina seems to be the D1 program most willing to stick its head voluntarily into the ECU meat-grinder (the Heels and Pack are compelled to do so by powerful state senators from the eastern part of North Carolina). As you may know, it hasn't always been pretty for us.
A Bit of History: Gamecocks v. Pirates
The Gamecocks first met East Carolina in 1977 when we won a close contest at Williams-Brice Stadium by the score of 19-16 over Pat Dye's then 4-0 Pirates - having to rally from a half-time deficit to beat ECU's vaunted wish-bone offense. True, we proceeded to wallop ECU through the 80's - reeling off seven easy wins in '84, '85, '86, '87, '88, '89 and '90 during the Joe Morrison years and the first part of the Spark Woods era.
But the story was very different the next decade, when we bowed to the Purple and Gold no less than five times in '91, '92, '94, '96 and '99 - only winning in 1993 and 1998. And that stretch included losses by Sparky, Brad Scott and Lou Holtz. Some of 'the defeats weren't just close - but shellackings - as longtime ECU head coach Steve Logan took us behind the woodshed year-after-year.
For a team like ours struggling to escape the SEC cellar, or to get some traction against Clemson in the 1990s, it was a humiliating indictment of how far we'd fallen after the steroids scandal in '88 - and how deeply Brad Scott had driven us into the ditch by the time we forced him out in '98. Any Carolina fan during the 1990s will particularly wince when he or she hears the name Scott Harley - or thinks back to that water-logged game in 1996 where we lost 23-7 mostly on the back of Harley's 291 yards on 41 carries (sorry if the rest of you got wet - I was high and dry in The Zone, drinking bourbon-and-ginger).
So it's not like East Carolina is exactly scared of us. They really aren't scared of anybody; much like their conference mates and C-USA arch rivals Southern Miss, the Pirates will play anybody, anywhere, anytime. Plus there are always a fair number of Palmetto State kids in the ECU program - many of whom felt they were passed over by USC. That's why a lot of USC fans felt a little queasy in 2007 when Gamecocks Athletic Director Mike McGee inexplicably inked a five-year deal with his old squad (he coached in Greenville for the 1970 season before departing for the Duke job). The first game under the 2007 agreement was last year - at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium - and no one will forget how poorly we played out of the gate - or how well ECU started. Simply put, Ruffin McNeill's Purple and Gold are not a team to be taken lightly.
Keep reading more after The Jump.
ECU's 2011 Season Following the South Carolina Game
You all know that the Gamecocks pulled away 56-37 last year thanks in large part to Stephen Garcia's 110 passing yards and 1 throwing TD (no INT) and 56 rushing yards with 2 TDs (no fumbles) - not to mention Marcus Lattimore's three TDs on 112 yards. Marcus would keep up the exceptional running until the season-ending injury at Starkville, but the ECU game was the high-water mark for Garcia's 2011 campaign.
As strong as ECU looked on offense against us with Senior QB Dominique Davis (37/56, 260 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT) and Senior WR Lance Lewis (13 receptions, 108 yards, 2 TD), the balance of their 2011 schedule was not kind to the Purple and Gold.
After playing us, the Pirates lost a heartbreaker to Virginia Tech 17-10 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium before getting in the win column against UAB. Unfortunately, this was followed by a 35-20 loss (also at home) to UNC and a 56-3 mauling by Houston on the road to leave the Bucs at 1-4 on the young season. A big road win over Memphis, followed by a narrow victory over Navy at Annapolis, and then a home beat-down of Tulane, saw ECU balance the season record at 4-4. The effort getting back to .500, however, wasn't enough to carry them through the remainder of conference play as the Pirates went 1-for-4 to close the season, losing to Southern Miss, @UTEP and @Marshall - with the only win in that stretch coming over UCF in Greenville.
The final record for Ruffin McNiell's second season in G-vegas was a disappointing 5-7 (5-4 C-USA). There was even some talk about him being on the hotseat following two overall-losing campaigns [to be fair, ECU was 6-6 and tied for 2nd in C-USA at the end of the 2010 season, and went to 6-7 by losing its bowl to Maryland] .
A Bit About Ruffin McNeill
Ruffin McNeill was a sophomore on that first ECU squad to play Carolina in '77, where he was a starting defensive back under Coach Pat Dye (ECU would finish 8-3 that year). He would be team captain the following two seasons, where the Bucs went 9-3 [Independence Bowl Champs] in 1978 and 7-3-1 in 1979. After coaching high school ball in Lumberton, North Carolina from 1980-1984, Ruffin signed on with Clemson as a graduate assistant defensive coach in 1985 and 1986 (the Tigers beat us in '85 and tied us in '86) before moving on to coach linebackers at Austin Peay and North Alabama in '87 and '88, He would go on to spend the next three seasons at Appalachian State as an assistant - the first under Sparky Woods - where ASU made it to the Division I-AA playoffs each year, and capped off a Southern Conference title in 1991.
Ruffin would return to ECU for one season in 1992 - where the Pirates would beat us 20-18 at Williams-Brice - before going back to Boone, North Carolina to serve as App State's D.C. for four seasons (1993-1996). Incidentally, Shawn Elliot was a co-captain of the Mountaineer squad that went 12-1 in 1995, and worked as a graduate assistant on Ruffin's defensive staff in 1996.
UNLV would hire Coach McNeill as its defensive coordinator for the 1997 and 1998 campaigns. Those must have been tough years (UNLV had recently made the jump from the Big West Conference to the WAC, and went 3-8 and 0-11 those two seasons). When the Rebels hired John Robinson, Ruffin served a coaching stint Fresno State, but really hit pay dirt by joining Mike Leach's Red Raiders staff in 2000 as linebackers coach and assistant head coach. He became Texas Tech's defensive coordinator in the middle of the 2007 season, and stayed on as the Red Raiders D.C. for 2008 (11-2) and 2009 (9-4). After Leach was canned in 09, Ruffin served as the interim head coach for TTU's Alamo Bowl win to cap the season. He was hired by ECU a few weeks later to replace Skip Holtz, who had taken the South Florida job.
2012 Game One - East Carolina v. Appalachian State
There was some talk about Appalachian State moving to the FBS Division, but C-USA was apparently unwilling to requite their suit, and the Mountaineers are still a FCS member of the Southern Conference. It has been five years since ASU famously defeated the Michigan Wolverines at Ann Arbor, but Jerry Moore's App State teams have played some excellent football in the intervening seasons - winning the Southern in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 - only to stumble a bit last year, finishing with an 8-4 record (though they still made it to the first round of the FCS playoffs).
Nevertheless, Vegas oddsmakers still installed ECU as a 14 or 14.5 favorite. Maybe they weren't giving ASU enough credit, because the Mountaineers had out-gained the Pirates 263 to 144 at the half, and - despite two turnovers [one a controversial call which ended up giving East Carolina a scoop-up-for-six] - trailed ECU by only 14-13 with 2:35 to go in the third quarter after kicking a 41 yard field goal. Lance Ray of ECU, however, returned the ensuing kick off 90 yards and the Bucs never looked back - turning the heat up in the fourth. The rout was on and ECU won 35-13, with junior signal-caller Rio Johnson throwing for 242 yards, two TDs, one INT (on a tip ball) and one rushing TD.
Despite "Ruff's" defensive chops, ECU is still suspect on D. Not only did App out-gain ECU at the half, but led in total offensive yards 332 to 242 at the end of the third quarter and actually finished the game with a 419 to 390 advantage on O (though ECU owned the 4th quarter by 148 to 87 yards and two TDs). ASU's Jamal Jackson threw for 300 yards against ECU, but with no TD's and 1 INT; he did rush for 1 TD on 34 yards.
The difference in the game had to be ECU's special teams, which accounted for the TD on the KO return, and Johnson's cool-headedness in his first start.
Be sure to watch for Gamecock Man's upcoming posts on ECU's Offense, Defense and his Three Keys and Prediction!