GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -For a change, East Carolina is opening its season with a game - not a catharsis.
No longer are the Pirates cast as the default villains while the nation rooted for Virginia Tech as the Hokies helped their community heal from a deadly campus massacre. A year later, and with the No. 17 Hokies once again first on East Carolina's schedule, the focus is back on football.
It's also on what coach Skip Holtz's team learned from not only the daunting environment they faced that surreal Saturday in Blacksburg - but how they nearly spoiled the Hokies' script.
Not that simply hanging close is good enough for Holtz, whose four-touchdown-underdog Pirates were significantly more competitive than expected in last year's 17-7 loss.
``You can never say, 'We proved we can play with them,''' Holtz said Monday. ``I don't want that to be our confidence level, because I don't think you gain confidence just from playing them close. I think your confidence level comes from knowing that you know what you're doing and how to do it, and you're doing all the fundamental things the right way that give you a chance to succeed.
``And we're not there yet. I want to make sure that we don't walk into that stadium with a false sense of security or false confidence just because we played them close a year ago.''
Still, if nothing else, the Pirates' performance in that game went a long way toward further legitimizing the reconstruction project Holtz started when he arrived in 2005 and began talking of building East Carolina into a program that wouldn't back down from the BCS's big boys, opening this season with a pair of what Holtz called ``great measuring stick'' games against Top 25 teams Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
``The fear of getting your brains beat in is an unbelievable motivator,'' Holtz said.
That certainly didn't happen last year in Blacksburg. They led the Hokies 7-3 late in the second quarter before Virginia Tech returned an interception for the go-ahead touchdown.
``A ton of the players will take more belief with them,'' defensive end Zack Slate said. ``Part of the team kind of went into the game unsure of about what was to happen. A certain percentage of the team went in, like, 'We're going to take this game to them.' And halfway through the game, everybody's eyes started getting a little wide, like, 'We're in this game right now.'''
Just as then, the Pirates will enter the Virginia Tech game with a serious lack of experience at a key offensive position.
Holtz confirmed that running back Dominique Lindsay, who was expected to replace NFL first-round draft pick Chris Johnson at tailback, will miss the season after injuring a knee during a ``freak accident'' collision with linebacker Quentin Cotton during preseason camp.
That leaves as the primary option Brandon Simmons, a bruising 225-pound senior who carried the ball only 11 times last season, gained 28 yards and scored two touchdowns - at least until promising sophomores Jonathan Williams and Norman Whitley figure out the position.
``You're walking into the teeth of the opening of your season,'' Holtz said, adding that Williams and Whitley ``are going to have to step onto the field and they're going to have to mature in a hurry.''
A similar situation unfolded last year, where the Pirates' inexperienced quarterback situation ultimately contributed to the loss when then-sophomore Brett Clay's second-quarter pass was intercepted by Victor Harris and returned for the go-ahead touchdown. Clay later was pulled for Patrick Pinkney, who wound up starting five of 13 games while splitting time with Rob Kass in Holtz's two-quarterback system. Pinkney was picked to start this year's Virginia Tech game.
``You would love to play (an easy) game early to get experience'' for the young players, Holtz said. ``We went in and had some inexperience at quarterback, and went in and threw an interception for a touchdown, and there's your football game.''

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