TAMPA, Fla. (AP) When No. 19 East Carolina faces South Florida, coach Ruffin McNeill said his team will be motivated by a desire to get better, not protect its national ranking or make up for past failures against the Bulls.
The Pirates (4-1, 1-0) are in the Associated Press Top 25 for only the second time since 1999, looking to remain unbeaten in the American Athletic Conference. They've never beaten USF (2-3, 1-0), which views Saturday as an opportunity to make a statement in coach Willie Taggart's bid to turn around a struggling program.
McNeill insists the Pirates haven't spent much time, if any, talking about being ranked or the Pirates' 0-4 record in previous meetings against South Florida.
The schools last met in the 2006 Papajohns.com Bowl, with the Bulls winning 24-7.
''We don't talk about the past because it's irrelevant. We can't control what happened in the past. We talk about ourselves and what we have to do to get better,'' McNeill said.
ECU climbed into the Top 25 following victories over Virginia Tech on the road and North Carolina at home. They inched up one spot to No. 22 during a bye week and jumped three more after beating SMU 45-24, with Shane Carden throwing for over 400 yards for the third consecutive game and become the Pirates' career passing leader.
A series of upsets wreaked havoc in the Top 10 a week ago, however McNeill said that hasn't changed the way he and his players are going about their business.
''At the end of the year, we want to be playing our best football. What's brought up is how we stay focused on making the team better. Fortunately, we have a group of kids that believe that,'' said McNeill, who's 33-23 in his fifth season at his alma mater.
''Our foundation isn't built on rankings. ... Wins are hard to come by. Trust me, I cherish every single one,'' the coach added. ''I hope everyone feels the same way. There's no such thing as an ugly win. Ugly is in the dictionary and win is in there, but ugly win is not in there for me. Our kids understand that, too.''
McNeill certainly won't get an argument out of Taggart, who moved from Western Kentucky to USF in December 2012, inheriting a program that ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation in 2007 only to fall on difficult times while compiling a 16-21 record in three seasons under former East Carolina coach Skip Holtz.
The Bulls went 2-10 a year ago in their first season under Taggart. USF lost 27-10 at then-No. 19 Wisconsin two weeks ago, and welcome another opportunity to surprise a highly regarded opponent.
''Where we're at right now, any win is the juice you should be excited about.'' Taggart said.
''It's great playing against a ranked opponent, beat those schools, everybody excited. But for us, any win should be that way right now, ranked team or not. ... I think it's going to be a fun ballgame.''
Some things to watch as ECU tries for its first 5-1 start since 1999 when Pirates play USF:
STOP US IF YOU CAN: ECU's spread-style offense is fourth in the nation in passing (395.6 yards per game) and total yards (581.4) and ninth in scoring (43.6). All of those are tops in the AAC.
DYNAMIC DUO: While the Pirates have a lot of productive playmakers, Carden and receiver Justin Hardy set tone. Carden moved ahead of former NFL quarterback David Garrard to become ECU's all-time leader passer with 9,134 yards. Hardy had eight receptions against SMU, moving within 47 of the NCAA Division I-A mark for reception in a career (349) held by Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles.
WELCOME BACK: USF's sputtering offense should benefit from the return of senior Andre Davis, who's closing in on becoming the Bulls' all-time leading receiver. He's missed the past four games after being injured on his only catch of the season, a 44-yarder in the season opener against Western Carolina.
GETTING BETTER: Taggart was encouraged by the way USF played at Wisconsin. It was a 3-3 game at halftime, however costly penalties and an inability to sustain drives on offense contributed to the Badgers pulling away. The Bulls had the ball on offense for just 39 seconds of the fourth quarter.
PIRATES DEFENSE: ECU's defense figures to be tested by USF's running game. Freshman Marlon Mack is the AAC's leading rusher at 107.2 yards per game.