East Carolina recalls last hurricane vs SCarolina
The circumstances are strangely similar for East Carolina. The Pirates hope the outcome of their first matchup with South Carolina in more than a decade is the same, too.
These teams play Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C., their first meeting since a 1999 contest in Columbia. Back then a focused, storm-fatigued group of Pirates topped the favored Gamecocks in coach Lou Holtz's first season, 21-3, as Hurricane Floyd ravaged its campus back home.
East Carolina hopes to give its fans another lift against the 12th-ranked Gamecocks this week as many in the region are still cleaning up after Hurricane Irene made landfall last Saturday on the North Carolina coastline.
''I told our kids this, `We have a lot of people depending on us,''' Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said. '''If you get tired, frustrated while we're getting on you about going to class, doing the right thing off the field, practicing with all you have, doing everything with the best you have, think about that. You have a lot of people depending on you.'''
The Pirates were facing the same thing in 1999 when the Tar River spilled its banks throughout campus. East Carolina had left early for Columbia to miss Floyd's arrival and wound up living out of a local hotel for another week instead of heading home to prepare for its game with then-No. 9 Miami.
East Carolina used hotel ballrooms as meeting areas and bused to Heathwood Hall prep school for its practices. Gamecock fans left boxes of clothing, food and supplies for the stranded Pirates. The Miami game scheduled a week later for East Carolina's Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was shifted to Raleigh for safety concerns. The adversity didn't stop the Pirates, who rallied to a 27-23 victory.
McNeill screened the school's 1999 football video for his players last Sunday, a day after Irene had moved on to the Northeast. He made sure his players understood there was something just as familiar for East Carolina as the storm systems.
''At the end, I told the team that it was not a made-up movie. It did not have directors or actors. These were Pirates like you are. Maybe they didn't sit in this same room, but they donned the purple and gold,'' said McNeill, starting his second season with the Pirates.
Stories like this don't always have happy endings.
The Gamecocks of 12 years ago were in the midst of a disastrous 0-11 season and 21-game losing streak, while the Pirates had 30 NFL draft picks on their team, including current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard.
This South Carolina team played in last year's Southeastern Conference title game and is the popular choice to return to the Georgia Dome in December as East Division champs. They feature potential all-Americans in tailback Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Plus, they added the country's No. 1 college prospect in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who makes his debut at Bank of America Stadium.
The Pirates are coming off a 6-7 season and were last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards allowed at nearly 480 a game last year. Plus, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier doesn't 'lose to schools outside the BCS's automatic qualifier leagues, a perfect 41-0 all-time and 15-0 since joining the Gamecocks seven seasons ago.
The hype, some fueled by Spurrier himself, doesn't mean anything until play starts. ''It's encouraging,'' Spurrier said. ''But again, until we did it consistently, it's just hope. We've just got hope right now and we'll see how it plays out.''
On Thursday, Spurrier said last year's backup, Connor Shaw, would start against East Carolina while Stephen Garcia would play the second quarter. Spurrier said Shaw outperformed the fifth-year senior who had started the past 28 games for South Carolina.
East Carolina pins its hopes on its offense. Quarterback Dominque Davis is expected to lead another dynamic attack. He threw for 3,967 yards and 37 TDs last fall as East Carolina averaged 36.8 points a game. McNeill thinks his porous defense from last year will improve.
While the campus of East Carolina remained underwater for days back in 1999, it was closed just Monday and Tuesday to give official crews less to contend with during powerline repair and clean up.
Irene left fallen trees and limbs throughout the campus and caused damage to several buildings. For Pirates defensive end Matt Milner, facing opponents like South Carolina is second nature. Since 2007, they've beaten Virginia Tech, West Virginia, North Carolina and North Carolina State.
''It's special to us, but it's not something to be in awe of,'' he said. ''You just have to prepare.''
For McNeill, it will be reminding the Pirates of their past and what's possible, in spite of adversity, with the right attitude.
''Watching what East Carolina did that year struck nerves with our players, I know it, "McNeill said. ''They could identify with the people.''