RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -East Carolina has grown used to playing these types of mismatches-on-paper against big-name programs from power conferences. Only this time, it's the 15th-ranked Pirates who hold all the advantages.
Yet Skip Holtz's team isn't about to take its latest BCS-conference opponent lightly - especially not when it's struggling North Carolina State, perhaps the most despised rival on the schedule.
After all, the Pirates went through this 11 months ago when a struggling Wolfpack came to Greenville and beat them to temporarily turn their season around.
``These guys were 1-5 last year and they came in here and beat us,'' defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell said. ``They beat us at our game in our house. ... We don't look down on N.C. State. Last year, we fell into the trap where the media played a role, 'State's not good enough, State is undisciplined.' And they came right in here and beat us.
guys lightly, going into their house and us being ranked,'' he added.
It has been a welcome adjustment for East Carolina (3-0) as the target instead of the perpetually scrappy underdog with something to prove.
The Pirates have made steady progress since Holtz arrived in 2005, reaching two consecutive minor bowls before breaking out this year with season-opening upsets of nationally ranked Virginia Tech and West Virginia and building a total defense that ranks in the top fourth of the FBS.
Last week in their first game as a Top 25 program in nearly a decade, Holtz's experienced team with a combined 31 juniors and seniors on the depth chart needed a final-minutes drive to outlast upset-minded Tulane.
``These guys took some lumps as young kids, and now they're seniors and juniors and they're dishing the lumps back out,'' N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said.
The lumps have come early and often during O'Brien's second season with the Wolfpack (1-2).
Forget about beating bowl subdivision teams - N.C. State hasn't even scored an offensive touchdown against one of them since the next-to-last week of the 2007 season. Then again, its offense has been racked by injuries, with six key contributors having missed varying amounts of time.
ndly Carter-Finley Stadium.
Mary - came as a holder on an extra-point try. He returned last week at Death Valley and twice led second-half drives into the Tigers' red zone but finished just 10-of-21 for 92 yards with an interception. Now comes another challenge: East Carolina defense's is the toughest to throw on in Conference USA.
``I don't think you can evaluate him based on just the Clemson game because of some of the things that Clemson defense does, and the way it flies around,'' Holtz said. ``But I think he's an excellent football player.''
For N.C. State to pull another upset, the Wolfpack might need a defense that ranks second nationally with seven interceptions - three by linebacker Nate Irving, including one returned for a touchdown on the first play last week - to force smooth senior Patrick Pinkney into some uncharacteristic mistakes.
Pinkney, Conference USA's second-most efficient passer, is completing nearly 76 percent of his attempts and is coming off his third straight 200-yard game.
``He's been the biggest difference on that football team,'' O'Brien said.
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