But instead of faltering down the stretch, the Pirates exploded for three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes of the game to secure a 37-20 victory in the Beef ‘O' Brady's Bowl Monday – the program's first bowl triumph since 2007
The win at Tropicana Field also cemented this year's Pirates (10-3) into the record books as just the second team to capture 10 wins in school-hisory. The Beef Bowl's most valuable player, senior tailback Vintavious Cooper, rushed for two of those late scores en route to a career-high 198 yards on 25 carries in his final collegiate game.
"Everybody looks for a six-win season to be bowl eligible, but we had higher goals than that," said Cooper, while wearing a backwards Beef ‘O' Brady's Bowl Championship hat, "We held ourselves to a higher standard. It showed today, it showed throughout the season. I can't say enough about our team."
Clinging to a slim 24-20 advantage, the Pirates applied the dagger on a trick play. Quarterback Shane Carden hit junior receiver Cam Worthy on what appeared to be a basic bubble screen. Rather, Worthy surprised the Bobcats by lofting a pass back towards Carden, who rose up against two Ohio (7-6) defenders for his first-career catch – a 14-yard touchdown.
"They had good overage and Shane went up and made a grown-man play because Shane is a grown man. He made that play in double-coverage like he's been doing it for a long time," said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill, who captured his first bowl win in three tries since taking over at his alma mater in 2010.
Carden was the nation's most efficient passer in the regular season and finished 29-of-45 on his passes for 273 yards and a touchdown pass Monday. The junior quarterback from Houston broke Dominique Davis' mark for passing yards in a season by becoming for the first ECU signal-caller to eclipse 4,000 yards (4,139).
|Carden celebrates his first career touchdown catch|
"Records are meant to be broken. They are there for a reason," said Hardy. "Getting with my coaches, finding everything I need to do to get better every day and then me actually going out there and doing it is big for me as a person."
Although ECU's offense surged in the fourth quarter, it was its defense that put the game away. Following Carden's touchdown grab, senior free safety Damon Magazu recorded the tenth interception of his career at the expense of Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton.
On the Bobcats' next possession, it was linebacker Brandon Williams picking off Tettleton, who threw three interceptions Monday. Cooper scored on a 22-yard scamper three plays later to seal the deal.
The first half was a tale of two quarters. ECU senior safety Michael Dobson made his first start of the season and collected his first career interception on Ohio's opening possession. The turnover led to Carden finding Worthy on a five-yard fade to open scoring 7-0.
The Pirates were poised to make it 14-0 on their next series, but turned the ball over on downs after Bryce Williams fell short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-two from Ohio's 15 yard line. ECU would eventually have its two-touchdown cushion on Breon Allen's two-yard rush.
Trick-plays on the part of Ohio coach Frank Solich gave the Bobcats a spark in the second quarter. A 26-yard reverse-pass to Daz Patterson, plus a 15-yard roughing the pass penalty added to the gain, set up Ohio up in prime-scoring position. Tettleton hit Patterson again for a 16-yard touchdown, trimming the Pirates' lead to 14-7.
Despite the Bobcats' touchdown, ECU continued to move the ball with ease, but was setback due to penalties and forced to punt.
On the next play, back-up quarterback Derrius Vick exploited a missed assignment in ECU's secondary and hit wide-open Donte Foster for an 80-yard touchdown that tied the game.
Now deadlocked, the Pirates marched 61 yards in 11 plays, but just as they did in the first quarter, failed to convert on fourth-and-two in the red-zone. However, they would eventually settle for points – a 42-yard field goal by Warren Harvey – to give ECU the lead going into the locker room, 17-14.
Ohio continued to slow the game at the start of the second half, with positive results. The Bobcats went on a 17-play 60-yard drive that removed about seven minutes from the clock, culminating on place-kicker Josiah Yazdani's 29-yard field goal to level the game once more.
Yazdani booted Ohio into its first lead 20-17 on his second made-field goal – a 28-yarder – in the opening stages of the fourth quarter before missing his first attempt of the season from 45 yards away.
The miss sparked ECU's go-ahead drive that was further fueled by a pair of Bobcats penalties that accounted for 30 yards, including a costly personal foul against linebacker Ben Russell. Cooper capped the 71-yard march on a 31-yard touchdown run.