Pirates Seek Redemption in Birmingham

GREENVILLE, N.C. — After a bizarre, last-second loss to UCF, ECU approaches its Birmingham Bowl matchup against Florida with redemption on its mind.

There are few things about Birmingham, Alabama, that set it apart as an attractive tourist destination. But for the East Carolina football team, its Jan. 3rd date with the Florida Gators at storied Legion Field is exactly what it wanted all along.

Well, sort of.

It’s understood that the Birmingham Bowl doesn't quite match the importance of the “Access Bowl” game that Pirate fans dreamed of after watching promising victories against Virginia Tech and North Carolina in September. Also, this group of Gators that ECU is pitting against is a far cry from the caliber of teams that brought a pair of national championships to Gainesville just a handful of years ago. As a result, Florida fired its coach, Will Muschamp.

However, when you get past all that, ECU (8-4), which lost three of its last five games of the regular season, is still playing in an early January bowl game against a brand name, “Power Five” conference opponent.

Above all else, The Birmingham Bowl is an opportunity for players — specifically, 19 seniors — and coaches to achieve redemption following the Pirates’ gut-wrenching loss to UCF in their regular season finale. In the immediate aftermath of the game, fifth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill was adamant in saying that the Knights’ last-second Hail Mary would not overshadow what his team had accomplished this season.

“What this team has done this year will not be defined by that one play,” he said. “We’ve got another game. This team has another chance left to play and show their resiliency.”

Senior quarterback Shane Carden added, “We just want to finish this season off right. I think in every bowl game we’ve gone to since I’ve been here, it’s always been ‘let’s finish things off right for the seniors and these group of guys.’”

Carden admitted the “Senior Night” loss, personally, took more than 24 hours to put in his rear-view mirror, but dismissed the notion that the bizarre manner in which the game ended adds any additional motivation to win the next game that didn't already exist — saying, “That game’s just over and we’re not thinking about it.”

ECU’s fifth-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has mentioned a few times this month that there is a real difference between preparing for a bowl game than a regular season game.

“Bowls are their own deal. It’s like its own season,” Riley said. “It’s different than winning a conference. It’s different than beating a big ‘Power Five’ team on the road. There’s just something different about it.”

Riley also noted a significant difference in preparation for this particular bowl game than bowl games in years past. Unlike the New Orleans Bowl in 2012 and the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowls in 2013, which were both played in domes before Christmas, the Pirates have had plenty of time to recover from their defeat on Dec. 4 and ease into bowl game planning.

In fact, the 2014 Birmingham Bowl is the latest bowl-date scheduled in ECU’s program history. In addition to that, there would be plenty more history made if ECU can capture a bowl victory against the Gators.

The Pirates have not beaten a Southeastern Conference opponent since David Garrard and Steve Logan went down to Williams-Brice Stadium in 1999 and beat Lou Holtz’s South Carolina Gamecocks, who finished 0-11 that season. Also, ECU has never won bowl games in back-to-back seasons since becoming an NCAA Division I program.

“It would mean a lot for this program and kind of pushing forward to the next group of guys,” said Carden on the big-picture significance that would come with a bowl win against Florida. “Whether we were playing Florida or playing Ohio again, we want to win bowl games. It just makes it a greater opportunity this year.”

PRACTICE NOTES:

The Pirates are in the midst of a week-long hiatus from the Cliff Moore Practice Complex fields to spend Christmas with their families, before returning for one last practice in Greenville on Sunday.

The team is scheduled to arrive in Birmingham on Monday and host two practice sessions at nearby Hoover High School. McNeill said the Pirates were granted a tour of Alabama’s athletic facilities by the school’s decorated football coach, Nick Saban, and that a tour of the Bear Bryant Museum was also on the itinerary.


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