East Carolina (8-5) looked for redemption and the Birmingham Bowl provided a wonderful stage. The Pirates suffered a last-second, Hail Mary loss to Central Florida in their regular season finale, but the Jan. 3 showdown with Florida (7-5) presented another opportunity for ECU to make an impact against a “Power Five” opponent and send its seniors off with a win.
The chance slipped away, though, as Florida came out with the 28-20 victory. ECU, trailing 21-7 at halftime, came out and did what it could to take control in the latter 30 minutes of play. Despite 13 second-half points, a fourth-quarter shutout and numerous opportunities to take the lead, the Pirates couldn’t capitalize at historic Legion Field.
PIRATES LEAVE POINTS ON THE TABLE.
Those seven points would be all ECU would score in the first half, but not for a lack of effort from the offense. The Pirates made it into Gator territory four times in a row in the first half, but managed to score no points.
Besides the touchdown drive, ECU’s most promising series of the first half saw Carden and company march 68 yards in 12 plays. The drive ended with a fumble at the one-yard line.
Throughout the whole game, ECU ran 101 plays and outgained the Gators 536-339. The Pirates also reached Florida’s side of the field 11 times. Even so, they only scored two touchdowns and converted two of three field-goal attempts. Carden threw two interceptions—including one from the five-yard line on ECU’s potential game-tying drive at the end. Isaiah Jones fumbled the ball just prior to that, but ECU caught a break when Jimmy Williams was able to recover it.
“We’ve just got to execute better in the red zone,” said Carden. “We ran 101 plays and had a ton of offensive yards. We had a few field goals there where we should have executed more and got touchdowns. Obviously, that pick there in the red zone can’t happen. (Florida was) playing great defense there, so you’ve got to give them credit.”
QUESTIONABLE RED-ZONE PLAY CALLING.
The biggest factor in ECU’s inability to convert on its numerous opportunities was the play calling in the red zone. More often than not, ECU opted not to run the ball inside Florida’s 20-yard line. This forced the Pirates to settle for a pair of short field goals by Warren Harvey when they could have reached the end zone.
In the third quarter, Hardy made a 19-yard reception and Florida was assessed with a face mask penalty. With the Pirates on the Gators’ six-yard line, Carden threw three consecutive incomplete passes that put the touchdown out of reach.
The strangest and most questionable play the Pirates attempted actually involved a pair of runs from backup quarterback Kurt Benkert. Head coach Ruffin McNeill said that he and the coaching staff designed a red-zone play specifically for this game that called Benkert to run a draw up the middle and, ideally, into the end zone like he did against North Carolina.
It almost, worked, too. Benkert made the run and picked up six yards, but was halted one yard shy of the end zone. With him still on the field, the Gators knew exactly what to expect. Gerald Willis forced a fumble, which was recovered by Brian Poole, as the defense stuffed Benkert at the line of scrimmage.
Vernon Hargreaves LEAVES HIS MARK.
Florida’s defense stood out as the most dangerous part about the team—both in this game and throughout the season. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is one of the reasons for that.
The second-team All-American spent much of the afternoon matched up with Hardy. The matchup didn’t seem to be all that detrimental to Hardy, as he finished the game with 11 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown.
While Hargreaves didn’t shut down Hardy, he made an impact elsewhere. Late in the first quarter, he came down on a blitz and Carden reacted by throwing an interception to Poole, which was returned 29 yards for the touchdown that tied the game at 7-7.
Fast forward to late in the fourth quarter, Hargreaves got an interception of his own that effectively gave his side the win. With just over a minute on the clock, it was 2nd and goal from Florida’s five-yard line. Carden, looking for Hardy, threw it into double coverage in the end zone and Hargreaves came out with the ball.
FLORIDA WINS THE FOOTRACE.
ECU knew that Florida would bring tons of speed to all aspects of the game. On offense, the receivers and running backs were able to use their speed to make big plays that proved to decide the game.
Adam Lane’s speed proved especially lethal. Without starting nose tackle Terry Williams, ECU struggled to contain the run. The red-shirt freshman rushed on four consecutive plays between the end of the first quarter and start of the second—highlighted by a 48-yard gain—to take the ball from his team’s 32-yard line to the end zone.
Starting quarterback Treon Harris also used his speed well before getting hurt. He opted to run the ball 10 times and accrued 48 yards.
Receiver Ahmad Fulwood used his speed to make a big play, too. His lone catch of the game was down the sideline. He ended up taking off and beating the Pirate defensive backs for an 86-yard touchdown.
“Our game plan was to contain the run, as always,” said Brandon Williams of the defense’s approach to Florida’s speed. “Me playing linebacker, that’s what we’re trying to do. They had a lot of speed and we’re fast, too. We had to get our assignments and have great gap integrity.”
Regarding the speed the Gators brought on defense, Carden added, “We played some good defenses this year. We played South Carolina, Virginia Tech and we played a couple good defenses in our league. They’re fast, but it wasn’t anything that was too crazy or out of the normal.”