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East Carolina Ready To Defend C-USA Title

Ron Clements@Ron_ClementsCorrespondent IAugust 27, 2009

BLACKSBURG, VA - SEPTEMBER 01:  Quarterback Patrick Pinkney #15 of the East Carolina Pirates reacts after the Pirates scored a touchdown against the Virginia Tech Hokies on September 1, 2007 at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The East Carolina football team under Skip Holtz has had the same two goals every season: win a conference championship and win a bowl game.

As Holtz enters his fifth season as ECU's head coach, the Pirates have accomplished both โ€” justย ย not in the same season.

Last year, ECU captured its first-ever Conference USA title after toppling Tulsa in the conference championship game. The Pirates then lost to Kentucky in the Liberty Bowl.

Two years ago, ECU fell short of its C-USA title hopes, but beat Boise State in a memorable Hawaii Bowl.

In Holtz' second season, the Pirates won seven games, but lost to South Florida in the Papajohns.com Bowl.

ECU enters this season returning a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball, including sackmaster CJ Wilson and sixth-year senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney. Yes, sixth-year senior.

Pinkney had shoulder surgeries each of his first two years in Greenville, so the NCAA granted Pinkney a sixth-year of eligibility.

"Patrick getting another year of eligibility was huge for us," Holtz said during C-USA's media days in Memphis. "It's a real tribute to Patrick and where he is, to work through the two surgeries and become the type of player he is."

Pinkney is entering his third season as the starter after taking over for the highly productive James Pinkney (no relation). It will be Pinkney's second full season as starter, and he'll have plenty of weapons around him with a deep backfield and three senior wideouts.

Also returning this season are tailback Jonathan Williams, arguably ECU's most talented runner, and wideout Jamar Bryant. Both were suspended for most of the 2008 season, but both are dynamic playmakers who, if they can remain on the field for the entire season, will be gamechangers for the Pirates.

With what could be a very good offense, the Pirates return a defensive unit that could rank, statistically in the nation's top 10 by season's end. Wilson recorded 10.5 sacks to lead the team. Van Eskridge and Emanuel Davis each had four interceptions as the Pirates were one of the nation's top units in terms of takeaways. ECU forced seven turnovers in last year's conference championship win over Tulsa.

"Defensively, we have some high expectations for 2009," Holtz said. "When you look at what we were able to accomplish last year, so many of the young guys who were able to step up, and then what we return.

"It's a real tribute to the leaders like Jay Ross, CJ Wilson, Nick Johnson, Jeremy Chambliss, Chris Mattocks, Van Eskridge and Dekota Marshall, and so many of these guys that have played a prominent role. They've been playing for the last two or three years, and now they're coming into their senior year. We do have a great group of leaders (on defense)."

Holtz said the defense carried the Pirates last season amidst a rash of injuries to the offense, but the defense was not immune. In Week 3 at Tulane, following the upset wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, middle linebacker Quentin Cotton tore his ACL and was lost for the season. He was the best player on defense for the Pirates, and the pulse of the unit.

Without him, the Pirates lost three straight and fell out of the top 25 before finally righting the ship with consecutive overtime wins over UCF and Marshall.

Filling in for Cotton was Johnson, who did an admirable job and led the club with 102 tackles. The senior from Charlotte is expected to play even better this season.

The Pirates have their work cut out for them with another tough schedule. After North Carolina State backed out of its 2009 schedule obligation, ECU tried to fill the slot with a home-and-home series with Oklahoma. The Sooners refused to come to Greenville, so athletics director Terry Holland scheduled Appalachian State instead to start the year.

The season opener has the state in a buzz, as the Pirates and Mountaineers will play for the first time since 1979. The game will renew a rivalry that once saw the two play every season from 1972 to 1979. Appalachian State currently rules the roost in the Southern Conference, a league in which ECU used to belong.

ECU is a prohibitive favorite in the game, but so was Michigan two years ago. The Mountaineers hold a 19-10 series advantage, but ECU has won the last four meetings.

Following the home opener against App. State, the Pirates go on the road to take on a pair of BCS big boys. First is a trip north to take on a West Virginia team bent on avenging last year's 24-3 beatdown in Greenville.

West Virginia lost a lot from last year's team, and could be the underdog in this game. Following the trip to Morgantown, the Pirates stay in state and head to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels. The last time the two teams met, 2007, ECU won 34-31 in Greenville on a last-second Ben Hartman field goal.

Hartman also returns, and the Pirates are hoping for another victory over an overrated ACC team.

ECU returns home to take on UCF in Week 4, but then hits the road again for consecutive trips to Marshall and SMU. Both should be wins, as the Pirates have more talent, but a bad Marshall team pushed its conference rival to overtime last year inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

A home game against Rice, which will be down following the graduation of the most prolific quarterback-wide receiver combo in NCAA history (Chase Clement and Jarrett Dillard), precedes a road trip to Memphis.

This is a dangerous game for ECU as the Pirates return to the site of their Liberty Bowl loss to face a less-talented, but dangerous Memphis club. The game is also a week before ECU's home game against Virginia Tech. The Tigers could pull off the upset here because this has trap game written all over it.

Should ECU be 8-0 or 7-1 at this point, the Virginia Tech game will most certainly be a matchup of two ranked teams. ESPN will be there, and the game will have a lot of hype as ECU tries to duplicate its upset from last year, and keep itself alive as a BCS buster.

Dowdy-Ficklen will definitely be rocking for this Thursday night, nationally-televised game. The Hokies, which could also be unbeaten, will be playing for their national championship hopes, and want to prove that last year's loss to ECU was just an aberration.

ECU closes with three tough conference games โ€” at Tulsa before home games versus UAB and archrival Southern Miss. The last game could decide the C-USA's East Division champion, and the right to face either Tulsa or Houston in the conference championship game.

A BCS bowl and a top 10 ranking is not out of the realm of possibilities for ECU this season. The schedule is tough, and if ECU can win the games it's supposed to win, and knock off UNC, West Virginia and Virginia Tech, the Pirates could be right in the mix at the end of the year with 12 or 13 wins.

This could be the year both season goals get met.

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