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East Carolina vaulted into the Top 25 by opening the season with back-to-back upset wins over ranked opponents.
In their first game since shedding their underdog status, the Pirates found they still have plenty of room for improvement.
After narrowly escaping their first loss, the 15th-ranked Pirates look to put together a more complete performance as they try to start 4-0 for the first time in nine years by visiting North Carolina State on Saturday.
Oddsmakers from Sportsbook.com have made East Carolina –7.5 point spread favorites (View College Football odds) for Saturday’s game (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 86% of bets for this game have been placed on East Carolina –7.5 (View College Football bet percentages).
East Carolina (3-0) scored two touchdowns in the final 3:36 to stun then-No. 17 Virginia Tech 27-22 in both teams' season opener Aug. 30. The Pirates didn't need any late heroics in their next game, a 24-3 victory over then-No. 8 West Virginia on Sept. 6.
Those wins put the Pirates in the Top 25 for the first time since 1999.
"We've come a long way," coach Skip Holtz said after the 2-0 start. "There was a time when we couldn't win three in a row."
Holtz's team got that third consecutive victory last Saturday against Conference USA rival Tulane, but the Pirates had to overcome four turnovers to do so. They were held to a season-low 316 total yards while giving up a season-high 312 in the 28-24 victory.
"It was a great win; you can't take any of them for granted," Holtz said. "To go on the road and come off the two emotional football games that we just came off of and to come out here and play the way we did and still get a win in this game, I am as excited as I can be."
While Holtz likely would've preferred a better all-around performance, he was impressed with his team's ability to come up big when it counted. Patrick Pinkney completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to Jamar Bryant with 1:41 left for the game-winning score.
"The one thing I was really proud of offensively was when it was time to play, and they were really challenged and had to make a play, they really stood up," Holtz said. "I thought they did a great job in a couple of crucial situations."
East Carolina is in position to start a season 4-0 for the first time since 1999, but getting there won't be easy after two key players were injured last week. Starting linebacker Quentin Cotton is likely out for the season with a right knee injury, robbing the Pirates of one of their most experienced defensive players. The team will also be without starting left tackle Stanley Bryant, who's out indefinitely with a left knee injury.
Though both injuries come as blows to East Carolina, Holtz is eager for the Pirates to get back on the field and continue their strong start.
"I don't think what we've done to this point is relevant," he said. "As I continue to say, the polls will take care of themselves. We're not worried about those. I think there's one poll that matters, and that's the one that comes out in December. That's the one we'll talk about and the one that we're striving for."
East Carolina's next test is an N.C. State team that's coming off a 27-9 loss to Clemson. Freshman quarterback Russell Wilson was 10-of-21 for 92 yards and an interception as the Wolfpack (1-2) totaled 288 yards against a unit that had allowed an average of 423.0 in its first two games.
Still, N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien saw some encouraging signs from his offense.
"I think the quarterback took a step forward and that helped the offense take a step forward," he told the team's official Web site. "After a couple of hiccups, Russell settled down and played much better. That's what you expect to see. We have to build on that."
The Wolfpack beat the Pirates 34-20 last Oct. 20 to take a 15-10 advantage in the all-time series. Holtz expects another battle against N.C. State, which has won 13 of the teams' 20 meetings in Raleigh.
"This is a very talented football team," he said. "Over the past couple of years, we have tried to recruit most of the players currently on their roster. When I turn and look at their talent and the game film from last year, I know that we've got one heck of a challenge.
"We certainly have to play better than we did last week. I think it's going to take more of an effort like we put together for West Virginia if we want to have a chance to go over there and have a chance to be successful."
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