The college football season is finally underway, so we’ll get you caught up on some of the big matchups around the nation in Week 1.
Saturday, September 3rd @ Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, NC
How to Watch:
- Noon ET on ESPN
- Spread: N.C. State -11.5
- Over/Under: 51.5 points
N.C. State enters its first game of the year coming off a 2021 campaign that shined a light on what head coach Dave Doeren has been building in Raleigh during his tenure. From breakout superstars to putting up a solid fight for a spot in the ACC Championship game, the Pack has plenty of positives to build on entering the season.
The red-and-white isn’t alone in that category, however, with East Carolina’s head coach Mike Houston getting his team back above .500 for the first time in seven years. One of many similarities between these two programs presents itself in the coaching department, with both shot callers finally bringing their teams to where fans have wanted them for years.
In terms of week one matchups for programs in North Carolina, it doesn’t get much sweeter than a new chapter in an N.C. State vs. ECU rivalry that began over 50 years ago. The Wolfpack enters the season with the No. 13 ranking in the nation, the program’s highest preseason distinction since 1975, and there’s nothing the Pirates would love more than to play spoiler to that hype.
Despite the Pack holding a slight advantage in the all-time record with 18 wins to ECU’s 13, matchups in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium tell another story. Earning its reputation as one of the rowdiest home fields in college football, the Pirates’ stomping ground always finds a way to give N.C. State trouble. The 2021 season saw the Pack face its fair share of distress in hostile environments, and the noon crowd on a hot Greenville weekend is sure to bring its A-game.
Luckily for N.C. State, quarterback Devin Leary has proven to be made for the moment. Earning his due respect from heroic performances against Clemson and UNC-Chapel Hill a season ago, the redshirt junior steps up when his team needs him the most.
The same can be said for ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers, whose consistency under center has played an integral role in the Pirates’ turnaround. Ahlers, combined with his explosive backfield options in Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris, possess the necessary firepower to deliver a punch in the mouth to an experienced Wolfpack defense.
Saturday’s matchup holds an eerie resemblance to a meeting between these two programs in 2008 when a No. 15-ranked Pirates unit marched into Raleigh with the expectation of steamrolling through an underperforming N.C. State. Much like the Pack this year, ECU’s team was ready to earn its stripes in the postseason; but a young N.C. State freshman by the name of Russell Wilson had different plans, securing a 30-24 OT victory.
From the outside looking in, this may seem like a warm-up game for the Wolfpack to get its bearings before jumping into conference play in a few weeks. In reality, this rivalry delivers action-packed barnburners up for grabs by either program year after year.
Players to Know:
Devin Leary – N.C. State, QB
2021 stats: 3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns, five interceptions, 65.7% completion percentage
Coming into the new season as perhaps the most underrated quarterback in college football, Leary has a golden opportunity to cement himself as the best signal caller to don N.C. State’s red-and-white. After breaking the program’s single-season passing touchdown record with 35, an accolade previously held by the legendary Philip Rivers, Leary is primed to translate individual excellence into plus ones in the win column.
Drake Thomas – N.C. State, LB
2021 stats: 99 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, three interceptions
Ending last season as the vote leader among linebackers for First-Team All ACC honors, Thomas has all the tools necessary to lead an already experienced N.C. State defense. Pairing that defensive prowess with the likes of N.C. State’s other starting linebackers, Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore, Thomas finds himself accompanied by excellent help to get to Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers early and often.
Holton Ahlers – East Carolina, QB
2021 stats: 3,126 yards, 18 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 61.8% completion percentage
Entering his fifth season with the Pirates, Ahlers continues serving as ECU’s glue guy under center. Helping lead the team to its first winning season since 2014, Ahlers provides necessary stability on the offensive side of the ball for Mike Houston to work with. If he can find a similar stride to the one he found in a three-game stretch last year in which he tossed for 300-plus yards each contest, the Pack is in for a long afternoon.
Keaton Mitchell – East Carolina, RB
2021 stats: 1,385 total yards, 10 total touchdowns, 6.5 yards per carry
Starting out his sophomore campaign as a member of the Maxwell Award Preseason Watch List, Mitchell has proved to be explosive in both the running and passing game. The back started all 12 games for the Pirates a year ago, earning himself a First-Team All-American Athletic Conference distinction in 2021 and the keys to the backfield for the upcoming season. Strong running games have given N.C. State issues previously, giving Mitchell all the confidence he needs to activate his X-factor on Saturday.
- Christopher Toudle: N.C. State, WR: Shoulder injury, probable for Saturday
- C.J. Johnson: East Carolina, WR: Suspended, out indefinitely
For more college football coverage, like this NC State preview, visit amNY Sports