2015 Birmingham Bowl Preview
Florida (6-6, 4-4 SEC) vs. East Carolina (8-4, 5-3 AAC)
Date: Saturday, January 3, 2015
Prior to the season, if someone would have said that Florida would be playing in the Birmingham Bowl at year’s end, one would have likely concluded that the Gators would be doing so with an interim coach. And that’s the reality for the proud SEC program, as Will Muschamp is out and Jim McElwain is in in Gainesville.
Florida, which only played 11 games due to the season-opener against Idaho—which would almost assuredly been win number seven—getting cancelled due to severe weather, wasn’t far from producing the season necessary to save Muschamp’s job. However, the Gators’ lack of offense—which was the common theme in far too many of UF’s losses over the last four years—contributed in narrow losses to LSU (30-27), South Carolina (23-20, OT) and Florida State (24-19).
Meanwhile, it was also a season of what could have been for East Carolina. The Pirates, who were transitioning to the American Athletic Conference from CUSA, won at Virginia Tech and dominated North Carolina (70-41) en route to a 6-1 start that allowed them to be the first team from the “Group of Five” to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff Top 25. However, ECU suffered losses in three of its last five—included last second heartbreaks against Cincinnati and UCF.
The match-up, which will be just the second ever between the programs but the first of two this calendar year (The Pirates travel to the swamp on September 12th, 2015), will feature one of the nation’s most explosive offenses facing a stout Florida defense that ranks among the best in the country.
ECU senior quarterback Shane Carden has completed 65 percent of his passes en route to throwing for 4,309 yards—which ranks second nationally—and 28 touchdowns (eight interceptions). The veteran signal-caller wouldn’t be considered a dual threat quarterback, but he is mobile with the ability to extend plays or run occasional read plays in short-yardage situations.
Carden has several viable options when he puts it in the air—which ECU does nearly 60 percent of the time—but the best is veteran Justin Hardy. Hardy, a senior who came to Greenville as a walk-on, is the FBS All-Time leader in receptions with 376. This season, he has caught 110 balls for 1,334 yards and nine touchdowns.
Hardy’s supporting cast has been much deeper and more consistent than ever before.
Sophomore Isaiah Jones is second on the team in receptions (75) while Cam Worthy is the Pirates’ biggest threat to make a play down the field. The 6’3” target averages nearly 19 yards per catch, as he has 47 receptions for 886 yards.
Meanwhile, there are four other options who have at least 14 catches and 200 yards.
The Pirates’ running attack has been by committee, but Breon Allen has been the top option. The senior speedster, who is averaging 6.5 yards per carry, has run for 869 yards and eight touchdowns and has the ability to hit the home run. However, it appears that the senior may miss his final game in an ECU uniform due to a knee injury suffered during bowl practice in Birmingham.
Chris Hairston (455 yards; 7.3 ypc), Marquez Grayson (289 yards; 6.1 ypc) and Anthony Scott (224 yards; 4.5 ypc) have been significant contributors all season and will be asked to carry even more of the workload now that Allen will be absent from the line-up.
ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and company will face their most difficult test to date in a very talented Florida defense.
The Gators, who are eighth nationally in total defense, allow just 311 yards and 21 points. Their success starts with their ability to stop the run, as opponents average just 3.2 yards per rush and only 116.8 per game on the ground.
Junior linebacker Antonio Morrison is easily the team’s top tackler with 98 stops.
Dante Fowler, Jr. will seek to apply pressure on Carden off the edge. The Gators’ junior defensive end, who stands 6’3 and 260, has 5.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries.
The secondary is led by sophomore and second team AP All-American corner Vernon Hargreaves III. Hargreaves III has two interceptions and 13 passes broken up—the most in the SEC.
In the regular season finale’, Florida limited FSU’s Jameis Winston to just 12-of-24 for 125 yards and picked him off four times.
The Gators haven’t received consistent play at quarterback where Jeff Driskel was replaced by true freshman Treon Harris. Harris, who stands just 5’11, has completed just 50 percent of his 100 attempts in throwing for 896 yards and seven touchdowns (three interceptions). The dual threat signal-caller has also run for 291 yards and three scores.
With the inexperience and lack of consistency at quarterback, Florida has opted to rely on its offensive line and running game.
They will be facing an ECU defense that has been among the nation’s best at stopping the run, but that has struggled mightily at defending the pass. However, the Pirates will be without senior nose tackle Terry Williams (6’1”, 353) so that is of concern when it comes to slowing down the Gators’ ground game that rolled up more than 400 yards against Georgia.
Motivation will be a key factor in this game. Will the Gators be motivated to play a game in Birmingham under interim head coach and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin?
After dropping their season finale’ to UCF on a hail mary and now having the opportunity to conclude the season with a win over a program like Florida, expect ECU to be ready.
Against Virginia Tech, the Pirates offense saw a lot of man coverage and blitzing. As a result, Shane Carden exploited one on one match-ups down the field with Cam Worthy. The same will likely need to occur for them to pull the upset in this one.
The last time out, East Carolina struggled to run the football and also had issues protecting Shane Carden for much of the night.
Expect those issues to occur again and for the Gators to get a win to close what was largely a disappointing season.
Prediction: Florida 30 - East Carolina 20
By Thomas Rosenbaum
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