BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Shane Carden fired pass after pass to move East Carolina’s offense swiftly down the field.
The Pirates racked up plays and yards but repeatedly stalled short of the goal line, including Carden’s late interception in the end zone, and ultimately lost 28-20 to Florida Saturday in the Birmingham Bowl. The result was a productive but disappointing day.
“We ran 101 plays, put up a ton of offensive yards, but we just needed to execute more,” Carden said. “We should have had that touchdown, but an interception in the end zone can’t happen.”
Carden was 34 of 66 for 427 yards for the Pirates, but Vernon Hargreaves III’s pick with 1:20 left ended his day. It was a school record for passing attempts and the most thrown against Florida.
The Pirates scored just two touchdowns on seven trips inside the Florida 20-yard line.
Treon Harris threw an 86-yard scoring pass to Ahmad Fulwood for Florida (7-5) and Brian Poole scored on a 29-yard interception return. The Gators’ defense repeatedly turned East Carolina’s high-powered offense away from the end zone.
Florida redshirt freshman running back Adam Lane was chosen the game’s MVP after rushing 16 times for 109 yards and a touchdown with Matt Jones sidelined with a shoulder injury. He had only eight carries coming into the game, all in two lopsided wins.
Harris left late in the third quarter with what Durkin described as an elbow injury and was replaced by former starter Jeff Driskel.
Driskel ran for a first down on a third-down play on the final drive to allow Florida to run out the clock.
East Carolina came in averaging 37.2 points a game, but managed only a field goal in the fourth quarter and couldn’t cash in on a number of flirtations with the end zone.
“Coming into this game, people probably didn’t think it would be this close,” Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We had opportunities that we just didn’t take advantage of.”
Justin Hardy finished with 11 catches for 160 yards and Cam Worthy gained 130 yards on eight catches.
Florida’s Harris was 5 of 11 for 123 yards and two touchdowns, including the play to Fulwood on a screen pass early in the third quarter. It was the Gators’ longest play from scrimmage this season.
Fulwood had just 113 yards receiving in the regular season. Driskel had 48 yards passing in what could be his final Florida game. McElwain said before the game Driskel had asked for a release from his scholarship.
Florida’s offense mostly sputtered without Harris, but the defense delivered.
Trying to expand the lead, Driskel led the Gators into East Carolina territory before Josh Hawkins forced a fumble by receiver Chris Thompson.
East Carolina drove to Florida’s 27 before getting forced back by a penalty and Dante Fowler Jr.’s third sack of the game in his Gators finale. Fowler has already said he’s skipping his senior season to turn pro.
The Gators took over with 4:21 left and went three-and-out. With two incompletions, Florida burned only 44 seconds off the clock before giving it back to Carden and the Pirates’ high-powered offense at their 42.
Carden completed three straight passes, including a nifty catch and run by Hardy for 24 yards.
Then East Carolina caught a momentary reprieve. Isaiah Jones fumbled at the end of a catch, the ball squirted away from a Florida player and Jimmy Williams dived on it at Florida’s 5.
Hargreaves, the Gators’ All-Southeastern Conference cornerback, picked off Carden’s pass two plays later.
The Pirates were playing without two of their three leading rushers, the injured Breon Allen and suspended Marquez Grayson. Chris Hairston gained 73 yards on 17 carries.
Carden and the other East Carolina seniors ended their careers on a difficult note.
“Losing is tough, but I am not going to look back on my career and think it was a disappointment just because we lost the last game,” Carden said. “We have done a lot of good things together as a senior group.”