East Carolina falls to Florida in Birmingham Bowl

Published 7:26 pm Saturday, January 3, 2015



BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For the third time this season, head coach Ruffin McNeill’s ECU Pirates (8-5) decisively outgained their opponent in yardage and failed to win, as the Florida Gators (7-6) escaped Saturday’s Birmingham Bowl with a 28-20 victory.

For the Pirates, it was a season that featured enormous highs such as a thrilling road upset of the No. 17-at-the-time Virginia Tech Hokies, a 70-41 throttling of their in-state rivals the North Carolina Tar Heels, and numerous offensive broken records — most notably receiver Justin Hardy becoming the FBS all-time career catches leader on Nov. 22 against Tulane.

But unfortunately, 2014 will also be remembered as a season of heartbreakers, missed opportunities and what-ifs.

ECU has five losses on the season — all of them by 10 points or less. At final tally, the Pirates outgained the victors in those games by 500 total yards (2,407-to-1,923).

The first and last FBS teams on ECU’s schedule this year were SEC opponents (33-23 loss at South Carolina on Sept. 6) and in both games, missed opportunities in the red zone can be attributed to the ECU losses.

Saturday, the Pirates ran 101 plays to the tune of 536 yards compared to 339 for Florida. However, a lost fumble on the 1-yard line with 3:40 left in the first half and a missed 42-yard field goal on the next possession put them in a 21-7 halftime hole that proved just a little too deep to dig out of.

The Pirates had their chances in the second half though. The last 30 minutes were all-ECU, as the Pirates racked up 333 yards of total offense, but with overtime in sight, ECU came up just short. With 1:27 left in the game and the Pirates trailing by one possession (28-20) at Florida’s 5-yard line, quarterback Shane Carden’s final career throw ended with the same result of his first career pass — in the hands of the defense.

The back-breaking turnover capped off what was a 4-for-7 day for ECU in the red zone with only two touchdowns.

“We needed to execute better in the red zone. That was our biggest problem,” Carden admitted after the game. “We ran 101 plays, put up a ton of yards but we just needed to execute more. We could have had that touchdown but an interception in the red zone can’t happen.”

Carden broke just about every passing record in the school’s history during his career and his top receiver will undoubtedly go down as an ECU legend. Hardy finished his career with 387 career catches — an FBS record. And Saturday he became just the fourth receiver ever to reach 4,500 career yards.

With all that in mind, one has to wonder, after five losses in the duo’s senior season — one off a Hail Mary (UCF), one after almost quadrupling the opponent’s yards (Temple), one with shaky clock management (Cincinnati) and two that were full of missed opportunities (South Carolina and Florida) — is there a sad possibility that the Carden and Hardy era will be remembered in a “what if” type of light.

Ruffin McNeill doesn’t think so.

“Look at the body of work, not today’s work,” he said. “Look at what these guys have done their entire career. These guys have done so many positive things for this university. They left a blueprint and a mold that I will use as long as East Carolina keeps me.”

While McNeill should rightly use this illustrious senior class that also includes standouts like Brandon Williams, Chrishon Rose and Cam Worthy as a “mold,” years from now, ECU fans might cringe looking back at what could have been a golden era.