Birmingham, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - Meeting for just the second time in history, the East Carolina Pirates will clash with the Florida Gators in the ninth-annual Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field Saturday.
East Carolina will be making its 20th trip to a bowl game in program history, and its first to the Birmingham Bowl. The Pirates finished the season with an 8-4 overall record, and will be looking to better a 9-10 bowl record with a second consecutive postseason victory in this contest.
Three-time national champion Florida is making its 41st bowl game appearance after barely squeaking into the postseason following another turbulent campaign. Interim coach D.J. Durkin took over the program following Will Muschamp's release after the regular-season finale, and will try to guide his Gators to their first bowl win since 2011.
These two programs have met once on the field before, as Florida came away with a 24-17 victory in the 1983 season in Gainesville.
East Carolina comes into this postseason bowl game after a loss in the team's regular-season finale to UCF, 32-30. Still, the Pirates have the second-best passing offense in the entire FBS (367.3 passing ypg) led by quarterback Shane Carden, who has thrown for 4,309 yards and 28 touchdowns against eight interceptions in 2014. Carden averages 359.1 passing ypg, and has helped his ECU offense average a whopping 37.2 ppg.
The Pirates aren't all about the passing game though, as Breon Allen (134 carries, 869 yards, eight touchdowns) leads a strong ECU run game that averages 165.4 ypg on the ground. Carden himself has been a steady contributor to the ground game at times, having rushed for 213 yards and six touchdowns this season.
For the most part, Carden has done a pretty decent job spreading the ball around to a number of different outlets in the passing game, although Justin Hardy is the clear favorite after putting up some hefty numbers during the regular season. Hardy caught 110 passes for 1,334 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014, averaging 111.2 receiving ypg. Isaiah Jones has hauled in five touchdowns passes, and Cam Worthy's 88.6 ypg average is the second best among Pirate receivers.
The losses ECU took this season can partially be attributed to defensive lapses, but for the most part East Carolina just ran up against some very, very good teams. The Pirates only allowed opponents to score more than 33 points in a single game twice this season, as the team enters this clash with Florida giving up 25.7 ppg and a mere 369.7 offensive ypg.
There are some injury concerns for the Pirates entering the Birmingham Bowl, but not to leading tackler Zeek Bigger, who recorded 134 stops this season with five quarterback hurries and two interceptions. Fellow linebacker Brandon Williams (113 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) is healthy as well, although safety Domonique Lennon (65 tackles) and nose tackle Terry Williams (7.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles) are both going to miss the game. The ECU defense will have its hands full either way.
"We are looking forward to the challenge of playing Florida, a program rich in tradition out of a conference which has our highest respect," ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We are excited to have another opportunity to accomplish something special for this senior class, especially against a team the caliber of the Gators."
Florida missed a postseason berth last year after a dismal campaign, and nearly met the same fate with a 6-5 record this season. There were some questionable offensive moments for the Gators in 2014, who benched starting quarterback Jeff Driskel during the season. Treon Harris took over under center, and passed for 896 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions, averaging 112.0 passing ypg. Harris, an explosive freshman quarterback, helped his Gators to average 30.5 ppg at season's end.
Florida's run game was a focal point of the offense this season after Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor each rushed for six touchdowns and averaged over 51 ypg on the ground in 11 games played. The Gators as a unit averaged 189.5 rushing ypg this season, and scored 21 touchdowns on the ground. Harris adds 36.4 ypg and three touchdowns to the Florida rushing attack.
Through the air, only one player hauled in more than two touchdown receptions this season. Demarcus Robinson recorded team highs in receptions (47), yards (774) and touchdowns (seven) for the Gators, averaging 70.4 receiving ypg in 11 games. Quinton Dunbar was the only other Florida player to net more than 15 receiving ypg this season (34.7 ypg through the air).
"There's a lot of change and a lot going on at our place right now, but the best thing for our guys is to get back on the football field," Durkin said about the transition from Muschamp to himself in the coaching realm. "They really enjoy one another, playing with one another, so they are looking forward to another opportunity."
While the offense was inconsistent for the better part of the season, Florida's defense remained strong with a core group of players that have very realistic aspirations of playing at the next level. The Gators allowed opponents to score just 21.2 ppg this season, and gain 311.0 offensive ypg in the 11-game span. Despite the team's 6-5 record, Florida only allowed opponents to score 30 points or more in a single game just four times - all against SEC competition.
Linebacker Antonio Morrison separated himself from the rest of the Gators in terms of tackling this season, as the junior registered 98 stops on the year with the next closest player (Mickael Taylor) checking in with 58 tackles. Lineman Dante Fowler Jr. registered 57 stops, and led the Gators with 12 tackles for loss and added 5.5 sacks to his resume. Defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III notched two interceptions with 13 pass breakups over the course of the season. He'll be looking to shut down the Carden-to-Hardy connection that ECU boasts so regularly.