5 Thoughts On The Birmingham Bowl

Recap, 5 Thoughts and what's next for each team in the Birmingham Bowl

Jan. 3 Birmingham Bowl
Florida 28, East Carolina 20

And You Care Because … In a sloppy game with six combined turnovers, Florida overcame some key mistakes and held on late after coming up with a 21-7 halftime lead on a 29-yard pick six from Brian Poole, a two-yard Adam Lane run, and a 13-yard Treon Harris pass to Brandon Powell. East Carolina started off the scoring with a three-yard Justin Hardy catch, and stayed alive in the third on a four-yard Cam Worthy scoring play, but the Gators got a little breathing room on an 86-yard Harris pass play to Ahmad Fullwood. The Pirates kept pushing, but could only manage two Warren Harvey field goals the rest of the way.
What Else? Florida QB Treon Harris completed 5-of-11 passes for 123 yards and two scores with a pick, and ran ten times for 42 yards. Jeff Driskel completed 8-of-17 passes for 48 yards
- East Carolina QB Shane Carden completed 34-of-66 passes for 427 yards and two scores with two picks. WR Justin Hardy caught 11 passes for 160 yards and a score
- Florida RB Adam Lane ran 16 times for 109 yards and a score
- Total yards: East Carolina 526 – Florida 340
Game Rating: B

By Pete Fiutak
1. And thus concludes, arguably, the strangest season yet by any team in college football.

Florida was ridiculously close to coming up with something shockingly great, but didn’t get the breaks needed late to take the SEC East. The Gators needed a massive break to beat Kentucky, but they also came painfully close to coming up with a win over LSU, got their doors blown off in the second half by Alabama, came up with the most statistically dominant blowout loss ever against Missouri, and lost tight battles with South Carolina and Florida State – and now this. The defense struggled against the East Carolina until it had to show up and produce, and the offense that couldn’t seem to move the ball came up with the really big pass play to pull away for good. The team never came up with the same game twice, and it was never, ever able to find anything that worked on a regular basis offensively. And now it’s over, and assuming a win over Idaho in a cancelled game to start the year, Florida was an eight-win team. Now it’s up to Jim McElwain to make it a national champion – that’s a big leap, but that’s Florida football. It’s time to be consistent, and it’s time to do more.

By Rich Cirminiello
2. Attend the NFL Combine in February, Dante. Work out at your Pro Day, if you must. But you just showed scouts all they need to see to select you early in April’s draft.

On a day when motivation would be hard to find for the Gators, Dante Fowler Jr. performed with no shortage of intensity and passion, routinely whipping the overmatched East Carolina O-line. For the versatile junior defensive lineman, it was one final audition before commanding a hefty bonus and salary commensurate with his skill set.

Fowler epitomizes what it means to be a freakish D-linemen, using his quickness and technique to repeatedly hit and harass East Carolina QB Shane Carden in a 28-20 Birmingham Bowl victory. And that Fowler didn’t take a play off, despite the risk-reward nature of this game is further proof that he has a great future on Sundays.

For the Pirates, the loss is a fitting end to this tale of two very different seasons. When November began, ECU was 6-1, ranked and more than halfway to a New Year’s Six bowl berth that was eventually copped by Boise State. Since then, they went 2-4, displaying an inability to handle prosperity or close out games. That the Pirates went 8-5 in the final season with Carden, WR Justin Hardy and a preponderance of veterans on defense goes down as a significant lost opportunity for a program that should have won 10 for a second straight year.

By Pete Fiutak
3. East Carolina deserved a better ending, losing to UCF in heartbreaking fashion, and now it had its chances against Florida, moved the ball well on the vaunted Gator D, and it didn’t get the job done because of key turnovers and the inability to turn late drives into touchdowns. Shane Carden threw for 427 yards, Justin Hardy caught ten passes, but for all the fireworks and for all the offensive production, the results weren’t there and the season closed with a thud. The Pirates could play this year, and they were entertaining, but they couldn’t build on the early momentum losing four of their last six games. The team deserved better. Carden and Hardy should’ve finished off their great careers with a better conclusion.

4. What’s next for East Carolina
How do you replace pitch-catch combination of Shane Carden to Justin Hardy? Forget it – you don’t. Kurt Benkert will get the first look at the starting quarterback gig, but taking over for Hardy will be tough, and losing Cam Worthy doesn’t help, either. Isaiah Jones should be the new star of the attack, and there are plenty of promising weapons ready to start doing more. Leading rusher Breon Allen is done, but Chris Hairston and Marquez Grayson are veterans who can take over. The O line loses C Taylor Hudson, but everyone else is back along with all the depth.

The defensive interior loses massive Terry Williams on the nose and 3-4 veteran Chrishon Rose, but linebackers Zeek Bigger and Montese Overton are back after big seasons. Brandon Williams is gone off the linebacking corps, and Maurice Falls is done, but the front seven should be fine. The secondary takes a huge hit losing key tacklers Lamar Ivey and corner Detric Allen, but three starters from the bowl game are back. P Worth Gregory is one of the American Athletic’s best after averaging well over 43 yards per kick, but veteran PK Warren Harvey is gone.

5. What’s next for Florida
What is Jim McElwain taking over? All Gator fans care about is generating more of an offense, and he has to see if Treon Harris is ready to be the main man, or if Jeff Driskel can resurrect his career. Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor form a tough and nasty 1-2 rushing punch working behind a line that loses C Max Garcia and OT Chaz Green, but should be okay with some tweaking. Are there any playmakers to make the passing game go? Leading receiver Demarcus Robinson returns along with Latroy Pittman, but the new coaching staff has to come up with more options.

DE Dante Fowler is ready for the NFL, but there’s enough depth and talent back up front to come up with one of the SEC’s better lines. Vernon Hargreaves might be the best defensive back in America, and there’s help around him with the entire secondary back. MLB Michael Taylor is gone, but this is still going to be killer group on the outside along with several options to play around with. PK Francisco Velez is gone, but Austin Hardin is ready. P Kyle Christy will be sorely missed.


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