Explosive ECU presents test for Florida

Defense hasn’t been the problem for the Gators this season, and it can’t be on Saturday when Florida faces an impressive East Carolina offense in the Birmingham Bowl.

The statistics make a clear case for how impressive the Pirates have been, especially through the air. East Carolina ranks third nationally with 367.3 passing yards per game and 15th nationally with 37.2 points per game.

Led by senior quarterback Shane Carden -- who has thrown for 4,309 yards, 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions -- the Pirates went 8-4 this season with a 5-3 record in conference.

Florida interim head coach D.J. Durkin said the ECU offense is mostly similar to Kentucky or Missouri on the Gators’ schedule, but even that isn’t a perfect comparison. They put pressure on opposing defenses, especially through the air.

“They’re very innovative in what they do offensively,” Durkin said. “You can probably most similar say those two teams, Kentucky and Missouri have some of the same concepts show and then the same type of tempo in things they do.”

When Carden and the Pirates need a big play, the senior quarterback often looks for his senior Justin Hardy. The former walk-on receiver is sixth in the country with 111.2 receiving yards per game, totaling 1,334 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. His 9.2 receptions per game is the highest in the country.

Saturday will be the end of an impressive career for Hardy. In his final three seasons with the Pirates, he totaled 3,723 yards and 28 touchdowns on 312 receptions.

“Obviously his stats speak for themselves,” Durkin said. “He’s got an incredible reception radius. He can catch the ball anywhere near him. Anything in his area, he's getting his hands on it and he's catching the ball. He's extremely quick. He's hard to cover in the slot and that's where he's at a lot. He's got great quickness to get open and he creates plays after the catch, too.

“When you watch the tape now, I don't think there's a team in the country that wouldn't want his services on their offense."

It’s a challenge for a Florida secondary that took its lumps early in the season. The Gators opened conference play and got torched through the air by Kentucky and Alabama, allowing 818 passing yards in the two games.

A small tweak improved the Florida secondary as the defense as a whole. The Gators moved Brian Poole to the nickel position, opening the second corner spot for freshmen Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson to see time. Their emergences helped solidify the Florida defense and the secondary played better as the season went on.

But it will face another big test in Birmingham.

“Our DBs have definitely improved,” Durkin said. “We have played a lot of young guys. We knew we would have some lumps early on, but we knew those guys are really talented and I think they have shown that. I think it's a great matchup both ways. They are excited to play our DBs and our DBs are excited to play them. There are some really good players that are going to be out there going and competing against one another making plays."


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