"I am always conscious of an uncomfortable sensation now and then when the wind is blowing in the east." Charles Dickens, Bleak House.
The Old North State's third largest university, established in 1907 as a teacher's college, did not graduate any male students until 1932 - so its not surprising that ECU's football program only started in the fall of '32. After the usual early growing pains, the ECU Pirates soon established themselves as a tough nut to crack on the Carolinas' small college circuit. In 1965, ECU joined the Southern Conference, and shared a conference championship in '66. By the early 1970s, the Pirates had begun playing contests with UNC and NC State, and established rivalries with Virginia Tech and West Virginia that last to this day.
Serious success for East Carolina, however, followed the hiring of future Hall of Fame Coach Pat Dye, who led the Pirates to six straight winning seasons from 1974-1979, including another SoCon championship (1976) and an Independence Bowl bid in 1978. Following the '76 season, East Carolina moved up into the independent ranks. As a result, it made perfect sense for USC - which had been an independent since leaving the ACC in '71 - to schedule ECU, which took place on October 20, 1977 at Williams-Brice Stadium [more on that below].
Thus, an off-and-on rivalry was born between the Cocks and Pirates, who have met 18 times. The all-time series record stands at 13-5 in USC's favor - with all five of our losses to the Purple and Gold coming in the Nineties (1991, 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1999) when East Carolina was coached by the excellent Bill Lewis ('89-'91) and Steve Logan ('92-'02). If you could go back in time to the turn of the Millennium and ask a Gamecock fan who suffered through those 90s-era losses whether USC should or would ever schedule ECU again, we would have probably laughed in your face. Never!
But for some inexplicable reason, USC A.D. Mike McGee (who was head coach at ECU in 1970) inked an agreement in 2007 for us to meet the Pirates two times in Columbia, twice in Charlotte, and once on their home turf in Greenville, NC. The '07 deal, which was to commence in 2011, had a lot of flexibility built in and we are already way beyond the original arrangement; this will be our the fourth meeting under the agreement (having played in 2011, 2012 and 2014 - all USC wins). Whether or when we play again at Charlotte, or give a return game in Greenville, NC, remains to be seen.
East Carolina is definitely a"football first" school - much more like their Palmetto State cousins in temperament than their Tobacco Road kin - and the Pirates aren't afraid to play anyone, anywhere. They also win more than their fair share of "upsets" along the way which makes a lot of teams avoid them. The word is that UNC and NC State only play the Pirates because they are forced to by powerful state senators from eastern NC; Duke and Wake Forest haven't scheduled them since '05 and Clemson has never played them.
For their part, ECU joined Conference-USA in 1997 (champions in '08 and '09 under ex-USC offensive coordinator and QB coach Skip Holtz); they were co-founders of the American Conference in 2013. Despite their success, the Pirates have not been able to finagle their way into a Power 5 conference, which only feeds into the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that makes East Carolina so tough. ECU historically develops players passed over by the "bigger" regional programs, and the Pirates traditionally bring it hard every time they play a ACC, SEC or Big XII school in addition to banging away against league foes like Southern Miss, Marshall and UCF.
So when ECU comes up on your schedule, buy a new mouth guard and tighten your chin-strap; you're about to be punched in the face.
USC's Top 5 Games Against East Carolina.
Now with the history lesson complete, let's move onto the top five games versus ECU from the Gamecock's perspective.
5. October 13, 1990 - Columbia.
I could have picked one of the six beat-downs we applied to ECU from 1984-1989 for this list, or the 48-10 pounding we gave them in 2012 (where the HBC complained about fans leaving early), but the fifth best game versus ECU goes to the 1990 tilt between USC Coach Sparky Woods and ECU Coach Bill Lewis, both in their second seasons. As is so often the case, ECU brought a top-flight QB to town in Jeff Blake (the future Pro Bowler and fifteen year NFL veteran), who the following year would lead the '91 Pirates to an 11-1 ranking and a #9 finish. But on this gloomy October day in '90, the game belonged completely to the Cocks. The defense held Blake to a measly 2-15, for 25 yards and 1 INT. Even though our feature-back Mike Dingle had a solid 116 rushing yards and 1 TD, it was a little known true freshman tailback sensation from Omaha, NE, Rob DeBoer, who absolutely creamed ECU for 165 rushing yards on 22 carries (!) and two TDs. Ultimately, USC would amass 445 total rushing yards on the day; DeBoer's freshman battery-mate, Brandon Bennett, would catch a 13 yard touchdown pass from QB Bobby Fuller for our only receiving score. It was a blow-out in every way, with USC never trailing and a 37-7 victory at the final whistle. Alas, the very next week, USC would lose the improbable 38-35 game to The Citadel, and go on to drop three of the next five (including to NC State, FSU and Clemson) for a 6-5 finish and no bowl bid. Despite the gaudy rushing numbers, no USC records were set that day - but the emergence of DeBoer (a fan favorite and two-sport standout on the gridiron and diamond) puts it on the list.
4. September 6, 2014 - Columbia.
Fresh off our 52-28 uber-humiliation at the hands of Texas A&M before the eyes of the whole CFB word in the kickoff game of the '14 season, the Cocks were a fragile team. Subject to ridicule and scorn, and with a defense that looked like it would have trouble stopping a Pop Warner squad, we had tumbled from our lofty pre-season No. 9 ranking down to No. 21. Now we welcomed Coach Ruffin McNeill's Pirates to Williams-Brice, featuring a strong QB [of course] in Shane Carden and all-American Sr. WR Justin Hardy who was on pace to break the FBS reception record in '14 (which he did). Many of the talking heads and pundits had put us on upset alert and when East Carolina opened with a 6-0 lead, and then went up 13-7 in the second quarter, every Gamecock fan was writhing in his or her seat (remember?). QB Dylan Thompson, WR Shaq Roland and RB Mike Davis (in GoT speak, 'second of his name') played well after the break, and Sophomore K Elliot Fry had 3 FG's to his name, but the game was still in doubt in the fourth with USC holding a slim 30-23 advantage and Carden/Hardy showing no signs of giving up. Then came a Pirate-crushing 18 play, 86 yard USC scoring drive that lasted a staggering 10:33 and culminated in a 20 yard Fry FG, a career-high fourth for him. Spurrier notched his 200th win as an SEC coach, and despite giving up 453 total yards to ECU, Lorenzo Ward's USC defense at least had shown some signs of life. It turned out to be one of our better wins that season; ECU would go on to shock No. 17 Virginia Tech the next week and hold an AP rank until faltering a bit down the stretch in conference play. Still East Carolina would finish a respectable 8-5 and earn a bowl game. Without the ECU win, we'd have never eked out a 6-6 regular season record and the Independence Bowl win over a decent Miami team that should have been Spurrier's swan song. In any event, the 2014 ECU game makes the list for Gamecock fortitude in the face of adversity, when we could have rolled over to them like we did in the 90s.
3. September 3, 2011 @ Charlotte.
Not only was it our first meeting with ECU in over a decade, it was also our first ever season-opener at a neutral site and our first and only game at the NFL Panther's Bank of America Stadium. Extremely optimistic for 2011 after our SEC East title and 9-5 campaign in '10, we were proud of our shiny pre-season # 12 AP ranking and were pinning our hopes on Marcus Lattimore and Stephen Garcia to lead us all the way back to the SECCG. Then came the news that hit Gamecock Nation like a ton of bricks: the HBC was benching Stephen Garcia in favor of Connor Shaw in his first collegiate start. Surely it was to light a fire under Stephen's backside - right? How would we fare facing the "air raid" attack of the eerily svelte, post lap-band surgery Ruffin McNeill and his offensive wunderkind Lincoln Riley was a nagging concern for the Garnet & Black faithful. When we went down 17-0 with 9:35 to go the second, and an ineffective Shaw had been driven from the game after being de-cleated by a ECU pass rush, it seemed like our worst fears had come true - a debacle in the making led by Sr. ECU QB Dominique Davis and their stand-out, star in the making RS Soph. WR Justin Hardy. But Garcia, in what was certainly the high water mark of his star-crossed USC career, came off the bench to run for a TD and throw for another to cut the ECU lead to 24-14 at the half. After the intermission, Garcia continued to dominate with a second rushing touchdown and good QB play, finishing with 110 passing yards, 56 rushing, and 3 TDs. After Antonio Allen scored on a 35 yard fumble return to put USC up 35-24 in the third, Marcus Lattimore then salted the game away with three touchdowns of his own (2 rush, 1 receiving). We prevailed 56-37 (giving up a trash time score to the Pirates). ECU would go on to finish a disappointing 5-7, but the W would be the first of our historic 33-6 run of 201-2013. More than that, the game is mostly memorable for Stephen Garcia's heroics before he would be separated from the team in four short weeks.
2. September 20, 1997 @ Greenville.
Ask USC fans around the water-cooler who is Carolina's most under-rated QB and they'd probably answer Shaw - who was indeed nationally underrated during our aforementioned 33-6 run from 2011-2013. However, the better answer would be Anthony Wright - "A1" - a 33 game starter from 1996-1998, who despite morbid coaching under Brad Scott & Co., a weak supporting cast and a torn ACL his junior year, amassed 5614 passing yards with 36 TDs on 21 INT during his career. Wright, a self-described "country boy" from Vanceboro, NC, located about half way between Greenville and New Bern, picked USC over UNC and ECU for the chance to play in front of packed SEC stadiums; having red-shirted his freshman year and then backing up Steve Taneyhill in '95, he was named our starter in '96 - the first African-American to play QB1 for the Gamecocks. Despite victories over UGA and Clemson, we'd finished the 1996 campaign a "meh" 6-5 (4-4 SEC) plus we'd also lost to ECU (again) and were home for the holidays (again). We wanted more in '97, but a 15-31 drubbing at Athens (again) that was not as close as the score would indicate had felled our hopes. Now, it was our turn to travel to Dowdy-Ficklen - the third time we'd made the trip to play at ECU - and most Carolina fans were trepidatious given ECUs unprecedented four game win streak at W-B and the fact that in '96 ECU's Scott Harley had torched us for 291 rushing yards - yes, you read that correctly. What torment would Steve Logan's East Carolinians and Harley inflict upon an under-performing USC squad on their home turf?
We need not have worried, as A1 had a homecoming to remember in front of 50 family and friends. He threw 10-21 and 137 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT. It wasn't total offensive domination, as we failed to score a TD in four of our redzone trips (USC K Scott Florio had 4 FGs) but we were effective running 59 times with RBs Troy Hambrick and Scott Moritz. We also ended with a 41:47 to 18:13 TOP advantage based largely on the Gamecock D holding Harley to just 5 yards on 4 attempts and intercepting ECU's QB Dan Gonzalez three times. The final score was 26-0 - a humbling shut-out of ECU before a then-record Dowdy-Ficklen crowd of 38,902. The 1997 season ended with a 5-6 (3-5) record and Wright would suffer a torn left ACL at No. 8 Tennessee; although he would return as the starter for the horrific 1-10 1998 season, it was clear his knee was not fully healed and his numbers suffered.
As for Wright, he proved his mettle by making the Pittsburgh Steelers' 53 man roster in '99 as an undrafted free agent and then playing ten seasons in the NFL - the most of any Gamecock signal-caller - with the Steelers, Dallas, Baltimore, Cincinnati and the New York Giants. He threw for 20 professional TDs and earned a Superbowl Ring with the G-Men at Superbowl XLII. True, he was predominantly a back-up, but when you think how tough it has been for Connor Shaw these last two years, and how other Gamecock star-QBs like Jeff Grantz, Ron Bass, Todd Ellis, Steve Taneyhill and Stephen Garcia never had more than a pre-season cup of coffee in the "Not For Long" league - for various reasons (injury primarily for Ellis) - Wright's decade as a pro shows just how underrated he was at Carolina. The 1997 ECU game was one of the good days he had for USC and served a little payback for the losses Logan & Crew inflicted on us.
1. October 1, 1977 - Columbia
It was the brash, swaggering, talented and engimatic Jim Carlen's third season at the helm of Carolina [enigmatic because he was a man of deep faith, yet could blister paint off the locker room walls with his foul mouth; he was a no-nonsense disciplinarian, but was openly insubordinate to USC President Jim Holderman and the USC Board (perhaps with some justification, but he gave a notorious Sports Illustrated interview where he openly voiced his contempt of the administration to a national audience)]. As co-A.D. and head coach, Carlen was happy with USC remaining an independent and torpedoed an effort for USC to rejoin the ACC in the 70s which was a strategic error that fate only corrected when we slipped into the SEC in 1992. Entering 1977, the Cocks were 13-10 in Carlen's first two seasons with one Tangerine Bowl loss in '75 to show for our effort. But Carlen had recruited George Rogers away from UGA and Clemson with the promise of immediate p.t.. and had built a strong OL. We also had some serious offensive skill position talent behind Rogers, too - including Sr. QB Ron Bass, Soph. RB Spencer Clark and Fr. RB Johnnie Wright - so we were expecting a big step forward in '77. With a 3-1 record, marred only be a close 13-15 loss at UGA, things looked bright for the Cocks at the start of 1977. But ECU (4-0) was in its fourth season under Dye, and had with big wins over Duke and NC State under their belt; led by third year starter QB Jimmy Sutherland and a potent wishbone attack, we knew the Pirates were going to be a formidable opponent.
A big crowd of 52,813 gathered at W-B - with its astroturf playing surface and only one upper deck [on the west (home) side] - on an overcast Saturday to welcome Dye's East Carolinians. Surprise! - we laid a first half egg - proving some things are just timeless at Carolina. We trailed 16-6 at the half following an ECU TD on a brilliant fake FG play; our only scores came on two FG by Laurinburg, NC native Jr. K Britt Parrish. After the intermission, USC came out of the locker room and fumbled away our next possession, and then Britt missed two FG (32, 42) in the third period. Still down 16-6 in the fourth, things looked bleak before Bass led us patiently down the field on a 63 yard, 13 play drive culminating with George Rogers punching in a TD on 4-and-goal from the 1. Now 16-13, we stopped ECU and got Parrish in range to redeem himself on a 41 yd FG to even the score 16-16. It looked we might have to settle for a disappointing tie, but ECU shanked their next punt. With the good field position starting on the ECU 40 yard line, we gave Parrish a chance for the W, and he delivered a game winner with 1:38 left to seal a 19-16 win to the thunderous applause of the Gamecock faithful. Unfortunately 1977 was a set-back (5-7) year as we lost six of the next seven, including four in a row to Duke, Ole Miss, UNC and NC State, and a close 27-31 loss at Clemson. East Carolina would finish 8-3; despite a couple of late season upset losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and William & Mary, the Pirates were the best team we beat that year. So even though the season wasn't memorable, the heroics by Bass, Rogers and Parrish (whose 4 FG was a USC record at the time) make the first ECU-USC game the best of the series.
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Thanks for reading and Go Cocks!