COLUMBIA -- Though it's big, loud and sometimes intimidating, Williams-Brice Stadium has been more like a second home in recent years for East Carolina.
The Pirates have upset South Carolina on three of their past four visits there, but reversing that trend is of secondary importance for the Gamecocks in their home opener Saturday at 7 p.m.
South Carolina, loser of its past 12 games, just needs a win.
"You just have to go out and you have to execute on a continuous basis, and we don't," Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz said.
If that doesn't change Saturday, South Carolina could fall off the ledge and into an 0-3 hole from which it might never recover.
In the wake of last season's 1-10 disaster, many Gamecocks players pointed to the third game -- a last-second defeat to visiting Marshall -- as the turning point. So, South Carolina's survival in 1999 might well hinge on its fortunes Saturday.
Though the outlook appears bleak for a squad whose punchless offense was a burden in losses to N.C. State and Georgia, Holtz says there is hope.
"They're getting better," he said. "The difficult thing is to keep the players working, to get better even though you can't see much profit. It's like encouraging somebody to keep working for a bankrupt company, saying, `You're going to get paid eventually."'
The Gamecocks paid quite a price for the Pirates' last two visits. With a 23-7 upset in 1996, ECU crashed a party that began a week earlier in the Gamecocks' big win over Georgia. Two years before that, the 4-1 Gamecocks entered the game ranked in the Top 25 and fresh off an upset victory at LSU.
The result: ECU 56, South Carolina 42.
Pirates coach Steve Logan is quick to point out that just four of his current players know the feeling of winning in Columbia.
"They have no idea what's going on and what it'll be like, but I do," said Logan, whose squad played before crowds of less than 50,000 in its two wins, but should be confronted with more than 80,000 on Saturday. "We've got a new experience for us."
The 2-0 Pirates sport a defense that has held West Virginia and Duke to fewer than 65 rushing yards per game and has intercepted five passes. ECU plays out of a base 3-4 alignment but is known to load up the front with eight or nine men.
Not exactly the defense South Carolina's crippled offensive line -- which has four offensive line starters who were playing defense this time last year -- is looking forward to seeing.
"I've never seen anything like it," Holtz said of East Carolina's defense. " ... I have no idea where they're going to go. It's the most discombobulated thing I've ever seen in my life, but very effective. With a young, inexperienced offensive line that's lacking confidence, don't ask me how in the world we're going to know who to block."
The Gamecocks' defense, which surrendered 431 yards last week at Georgia, appears to have its hands full again. The Pirates average almost 480 yards per contest, and sophomore quarterback David Garrard -- like Georgia's Quincy Carter -- is as dangerous on his feet as he is with his arm. The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder is ECU's second-leading rusher.
"We better be disciplined and we better play well, and even if we do, we're going to give up some big plays to this offensive football team," Holtz said.
Still, the 62-year-old said he thinks repairing the Gamecocks' tattered program begins with a look in the mirror.
"I'm worried more about our football team than anything else."
Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.