The Pirates (9-3) will line up against the Ohio Bobcats (7-5) of the Mid-American Conference at Tropicana Field Monday looking for their first bowl victory since the 2007 Hawaii Bowl. Meanwhile, the Bobcats are seeking their third bowl triumph in a row.
Most recently, Ohio crushed Louisiana-Monroe 45-14 in the 2012 Independence Bowl. However, ECU was not quite as lucky last season – falling 43-34 to Louisiana Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl.
Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton has been at the controls for much of the Bobcats' success in recent years and up to this point, has enjoyed a superb senior season. Tettleton passed for 2,623 yards and 20 touchdowns to just nine interceptions through 12 games.
His favorite target, 6-foot-1 wide receiver Donte Foster, has hauled in 63 receptions for six touchdowns. Senior tailback Beau Blankenship has been given the bulk of the carries in the backfield en route to 844 yards and five touchdowns on the season.
"Offensively, they play an up-beat, ‘NASCAR' offense like we do, so defensively, we've faced that before," said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill. "They have a quarterback with a lot of snaps under his belt, so we have to be ready to change looks. You can't stay in the same thing versus him."
Ohio's one common opponent with ECU is the Marshall Thundering Herd, whom defeated the Pirates decisively – 59-28 – in their regular season finale in Huntington, W. Va. The Bobcats, on the other hand, took care of their former MAC rivals 34-31 on their home field in Septemeber.
Even though those results would lead you to believe otherwise, ECU is a double-figure favorite to beat Ohio on Monday. But ever since the disheartening loss to Marshall, the Pirates set their minds and hearts on redemption.
"Our team is a very resilient team. They have been that way all year. The following week, I had three items for the team to dive into and embrace, and they did it with a passion," McNeill told reporters. "One was to make sure they finished strong academically and the kids did that very well. Next was to rehab with Jake [Moore] in our sports medicine department, and then work hard with [strength coach] Jeff Connors. J.C. got after them and his report was, ‘Excellent work, great attendance as always and we got a lot of work done – great conditioning'."
McNeill is still searching for his first bowl win as the head coach of his alma mater; a program that is starved for a bowl win having dropped its last four appearances. This will be McNeill's third bowl game since arriving at ECU in 2010.
Monday also presents an opportunity for the Pirates to do something that has only been done once in program history: win 10 games or more in a single season. The last group to accomplish the feat was the 11-1 1991 team that won the Peach Bowl and finished the year ranked ninth nationally.
After failing to capture a Conference USA Championship, securing double-figure wins this season has become a priority for McNeill. Not for him, personally, but for the players he has recruited.
"For me, it's all about the players. This team has worked, invested and they've done everything I've asked of them. I'm really honored to be around them and proud to be their coach," he said. "To get a win, for me, would be satisfying for them. It's important for our program to go into the offseason with a win."
During his tenure as a player, McNeill led ECU to its first bowl appearance in the modern era when the Pirates defeated Louisiana Tech in the 1978 Independence Bowl.
ECU leads the all-time series with Ohio 2-0, but they have not met since 1998. The game will be televised on ESPN and can be heard on both ESPN Radio and the Pirates IMG Sports Network. Kick-off time is set for 2 p.m.
Prediction: East Carolina 35, Ohio 24