BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The East Carolina Pirates brought their high-octane offense to the Birmingham Bowl. The Pirates ran 101 plays — a Birmingham Bowl record. The Pirates also set records for most first downs (32), most passing yards (427), pass attempts (68), completed passes (34) and total offensive yards in the game with a staggering 536. ECU receiver Justin Hardy’s 11 interceptions were also a Birmingham Bowl record.
ECU re-wrote the record books in Birmingham on Saturday afternoon but one stat repeated itself. ECU is now 0-2 in the Birmingham Bowl following a 28-20 loss to the Florida Gators.
“I can’t say enough about the opponent, East Carolina, and their coaching staff,” interim head coach D.J. Durkin said. “We’ve been saying all along through our prep that they’re a great team in many ways. They play the game the right way and they sure did again today.”
The elements were a factor. Rain clouds made the day overcast, gloomy and cold. The clouds opened up and the wind sent raindrops hurling down sideways on to both teams and the fans that braved the storm to watch the game. Players from both sides slipped on the wet turf and the game lasted nearly four hours as injuries piled up and players had to be attended to.
The Pirates were able to strike first. A three-yard pass from Shane Carden found Justin Hardy in the end zone. The two came into the game with more passes completed than any other active quarterback-receiver combination and they continued that connection Saturday.
Florida’s defense responded well. The Gators’ offense was forced to punt, shifting momentum over to the Pirates as Carden led the offense back on to the field. However, Vernon Hargreaves blitzed off of the strong side, sensing pressure Carden rushed a throw into the waiting arms of Brian Poole — it was Poole’s team-leading fourth interception. Poole raced 29 yards into the end zone to tie the game.
“I’m happy that he was able to get it in the end zone finally,” joked Durkin.” Brian’s had a few that he could have run back this year but this was his first.”
After tying the game Florida turned up the heat by turning to a seldom-used running back in redshirt freshman Adam Lane. Lane took a hand off from Treon Harris, watched senior Chaz Green clear a lane for him with a block, made someone miss and took off. He wouldn’t be caught for 48 yards and would plunge into the end zone a few plays later, giving the Gators a lead they would never relinquish.
The 48-yard carry was just Lane’s ninth career attempt and the touchdown his first.
“A guy like Adam Lane, who we hadn’t seen much throughout the year, stepped up and showed what he could do,” said Durkin. “He’s a great football player.”
“It was great to be able to help get a win for our team and send these seniors off right and this coaching staff of right,” Lane said. “It was a great accomplishment, and it was a great feeling to help those guys.”
The Gators would never trail in the game after Lane’s touchdown but they would make it interesting. ECU came within a score before Ahmad Fulwood took a screen pass 86-yards for a touchdown. The pass and catch was Florida’s longest play from scrimmage and the longest of Fulwood’s career.
ECU would kick two field goals and come within eight points. Florida fans held their breath as they watched a plot they have seen far too many times seemingly unfolding yet again.
Treon Harris left the game and Jeff Driskel took over for him. Driskel throws a pass to Quinton Dunbar, dropped, punt. ECU ball.
The Pirates drove down the field with time running out. A pass got them all the way down to the five yard line but the Florida defense stood stout. Vernon Hargreaves picked off Carden in the end zone with 2:08 left in the game. Still, with timeouts left, the Pirates had life and the game rested on the shoulders of Driskel and the offense.
On third and four, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper dialed up a bootleg for Driskel. The redshirt junior and formerly maligned starting quarterback took the moment on his shoulders and found nine yards of grass to gain and a first down.
He would take two knees and a win in his final game as a Gator. Driskel has asked for a release from his scholarship, something that new head coach Jim McElwain will honor, “We’re not going to keep him hostage,” McElwain said.
“I think he was outstanding. I think it says a lot about him as a person,” Durkin said. “The amount of adversity he’s had to go through in his career, to be honest, I don’t know if I could last through that. That says a lot about him.”
The Florida Gators swarmed the field, surrounding former Gator Country write Laura Rutledge and lifted the trophy above their heads.
Following the trophy ceremony the Gators said goodbyes — only Mike Summers and Chris Leak are expected to be retained on the staff. Players hugged their position coaches, who offered words of advice and encouragement. The players and coaches hung around the field for a while, soaking up the win.
This is the last time this team will be together but the pieces are there for a new beginning for the Florida Gators football program.