Senior RB Vintavious Cooper
Nov. 23, 2013
By Bill Woodward
RALEIGH, N.C. - East Carolina's football team has thoroughly enjoyed its two trips to the Triangle this season.
The Pirates rolled to a 42-28 victory over NC State on Saturday in a game that was not as close as the final score, giving East Carolina victories over North Carolina and NCSU in the same season for the first time in the program's history.
The Pirates improved to 9-2, the most victories in a season for fourth-year coach Ruffin McNeill. But the 2-0 mark against the Triangle schools had a special meaning for the coach and his players.
"I'm very proud of our team and our staff to be able to beat two great institutions like North Carolina and NC State," McNeill said. "I'm honored to be a part of that. Our team feels the same way. I humbled to be able to do it.
"I know our alumni appreciate (the victories over UNC and NC State). Having grown up in this state, I understand the significance of it. Having played against them both and having coached against them both, I understand that. We will see the results of this in how recruits react."
Zeek Bigger, a sophomore linebacker from Gastonia, put it on a more personal level.
"The guys I played against in high school, some of them are at NC State and some at North Carolina," Bigger said. "That part is good because I can go home and say a lot of things. But just being a North Carolina kid, it feels great just to know we own the state."
The Pirates used the same formula for success that they have used often this season - Shane Carden and Justin Hardy connecting often, and in big situations Vintavious Cooper chewing up yards on the ground.
Carden passed for 255 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for two short scores, while Hardy had eight catches for 83 yards and a score. Cooper rushed for 148 yards on 22 carries - averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
Hardy, a junior, set an ECU single-season receiving yardage record with his third-quarter catch for 11 yards and pushed his season total to 1,130 yards - passing Dwayne Harris (1,123 in 2010).
The record was secondary to the victory, Hardy said. But unlike the raucous reaction to the win at UNC on Sept. 28 - the first at UNC since 1975 - there was more of a business-like feel to the win over an NC State team that lost its seventh straight and dropped to 3-8.
"Yeah that is the mindset," Hardy said. "This is what we are supposed to do every game. We are supposed to come out and play our hearts out and get the win."
Still, the former West Craven star who wasn't recruited by either UNC or NC State and was an invited walk-on to ECU, enjoyed the feeling of beating both in-state rivals.
"It's big to beat them both (in the same year)," Hardy said. "The rivalry we have with these schools in North Carolina and to go against them and actually win is real big for the program. It is a great feeling to beat the in-state rivals."
The Pirates took the opening kickoff for the 22nd-straight game, and as they often have done, drove right down the field. The 75-yard drive culminated in a 3-yard TD pass from Carden to Hardy and the Pirates were up 7-0.
State answered with a drive of its own, marching 76 yards to tie the score at 7-7.
Then the Pirates took over. East Carolina scored 28 straight points over the next two quarters, taking a 35-7 lead on Breon Allen's 3-yard run with 5:02 left in the third period.
"The defense made great adjustments during the game," McNeill said. "After that first (NC State) drive, we were able to get a little more third down and long distance, and were able to affect the quarterback.
"And I thought offensively we did a good job of balance."
More importantly, McNeill said, his team was able to focus on defeating an in-state rival with a game at Marshall on Friday that will determine the East Division champion in Conference USA.
"Coming into this game in the middle of a conference race, it's tough to be able to keep focus in as big a game as this," McNeill said. "It's an in-state rivalry, in-state competition. For our kids to be able to do that, I am very proud of them."
Carden and Cooper are both well aware of the rivalry with the Triangle schools, but they were quick to point out the importance of getting ready to play Marshall, and moving on from the victory at Carter-Finley Stadium - no matter how special it was to the Pirates fans and players.
"This means a lot more to the fans, but at the same time we have bigger fish to fry than North Carolina and NC State," Cooper said.
Carden, a junior from Houston, Texas, said he'll think about the historical significance of the double-dip in the Triangle when the season is over.
"This is an exciting win for us," Carden said. "It means a lot for Pirate Nation, I know that. It is something that we can look back after the year is over and kind of think about it more. But right now, we have a big game coming and have to think about that. We have to move on."
With the score tied at 7-7, East Carolina forced to punt on three-straight possessions.
Carden, meanwhile, was putting points on the board. He threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Williams and ran in from 3 yards out to put the Pirates up 21-7. A missed field goal attempt by NC State left the score 21-7 at halftime.
The Pirates forced a Wolfpack punt on the first possession of the second half and drove 67 yards to go up 28-7 on Carden's 1-yard sneak with 8:23 left in the third quarter.
State then drove to the ECU 36 and faced a fourth-and-1. The Pirates defense slammed Shadrach Thornton for a 1-yard loss and took over on downs. Six plays and 63 yards later, Allen's TD run made it 35-7.
After that, it was just a matter of the margin of victory. NC State made it closer with two late TDs, scoring with 51 seconds left to cut the deficit to 42-21 and then recovered an onside kick, scoring with five seconds left for a deceiving final of 42-28.
"I'm not happy with the way we finished," McNeill said. "But to come in here and get a win, I am very proud of them."