Florida thwarts East Carolina’s comeback to win Birmingham Bowl
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Florida Gators got big plays from star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, quarterback Treon Harris and two of their lesser known teammates.
Harris threw an 86-yard scoring pass to mostly unheralded receiver Ahmad Fulwood, and Hargreaves intercepted a pass in the end zone late to preserve Florida’s 28-20 victory over East Carolina on Saturday in the Birmingham Bowl.
The big plays helped the Gators (7-5) finish a disappointing season with a winning record while new coach Jim McElwain was among the spectators. Brian Poole also scored on a 29-yard interception return and Florida’s defense repeatedly turned East Carolina’s high-powered offense away from the end zone.
"Words can’t describe how I feel about these guys as a team," interim head coach D.J. Durkin said. "I’m so happy for our players to go get that win."
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.
Shane Carden was 34 of 66 for 427 yards for the Pirates (8-5), but Hargreaves’ pick with 1:20 left ended his day. It was a school record for passing attempts and the most thrown against Florida.
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.
Durkin took over for the bowl game after Will Muschamp’s firing.
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.
Carden’s take on the offense: "We ran 101 plays, put up a ton of offensive yards, but we just needed to execute more. We should have had that touchdown, but an interception in the end zone can’t happen."
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.
The game gave young players like Lane and Fulwood hope for more playing time under the new regime.
"It just built a bigger fire inside me and made me want to work harder," Lane said.
Fulwood had just 113 yards receiving in the regular season. Driskel had 48 passing yards in what could be his final Florida game. McElwain said before the game Driskel had asked for a release from his scholarship.
"It says a lot about him as a person," Durkin said. "The amount of adversity he’s gone through in his career, I don’t know if I could have made it through that."
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.
"His celebration dances were not very good," Durkin joked. "Dante was disruptive in the backfield all day long. For a guy in his situation to go out and do what he did and play how he played … it’s pretty amazing."
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 dove on it at Florida’s 5.
Hargreaves, the Gators’ All-Southeastern Conference cornerback, picked off Carden’s pass two plays later.