Fitting finish: Defense — what else? — stands tall for Florida in bowl victory

Florida Gators defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III (1) celebrates after an interception to seal the game for the Gators against the East Carolina Pirates during the 2015 Birmingham Bowl.

Marvin Gentry/Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — If you like an ending that fits, the Gators delivered one Saturday.

The Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field was on the line as East Carolina drove deep into Florida territory in the final moments. The Gators’ 14-point lead had dwindled to eight with the Pirates threatening to score and force potential overtime with a two-point conversion.

On second-and-10 from the Gators’ 23-yard line, East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden completed a short pass to Isaiah Jones, who fumbled. The ball squirted forward and bounced inside the 10. For a brief moment, it looked as if Gators All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III might beat ECU’s Jimmy Williams to the ball.

However, an official got in Hargreaves’ way and Williams recovered at Florida’s 5, setting up a first-and-goal.

After an incomplete pass, Hargreaves got his turnover, picking off Carden’s pass aimed for standout receiver Justin Hardy in the end zone with 1 minute, 16 seconds left.

The Gators ran out the clock on a 28-20 victory and a roller-coaster ride of a 2014 season, one that started with high hopes under former head coach Will Muschamp and ended with interim head coach D.J. Durkin keeping the team together as Florida hired Jim McElwain to replace Muschamp.

Senior linebacker Michael Taylor was one of the first players to race over to Hargreaves to celebrate.

"This was something special," Taylor said. "Our head coach got fired, and I feel we had to come together because our main leader wasn’t there, the guy whose voice we’re used to. We know he was watching. We wanted to do it for him, we wanted to do it for each other."

And it was fitting that the defense, led by Durkin from the sideline, Hargreaves in the secondary, and without starting linebacker Antonio Morrison (knee injury) for most of the game, sealed the win to clinch a winning season for the Gators (7-5).

Florida vs. East Carolina

Hargreaves played his usual stellar game, providing a key block on Florida’s first score — a 29-yard interception return by defensive back Brian Poole — and finishing with five tackles.

The game-clinching interception was a good way to end his sophomore season and begin looking ahead to 2015.

"I ran into the ref [on the fumble]. I wasn’t very happy about that but I know there’s nothing you can do about it," Hargreaves said. "And at the end of the game, I know what time it is, it’s best on best, and I made the play this game."

Hargreaves said while outsiders questioned if the Gators had mentally checked out following the coaching change, that story line was never an issue in the locker room.

They wanted to win for Durkin, the assistants leaving the program, and themselves.

"We came together as a team," Hargreaves said. "It’s easy to quit, it’s easy to leave, but Durk stayed, all the coaches stayed, and we got the win. We’re family. I played my heart out for them."

Several Florida players had big games to help the Gators become the only team from the Sunshine State to win a bowl game this season. UCF, Miami and Florida State all lost bowl games, giving the Gators a much-needed boost entering a new era under McElwain, who starts meeting with players individually on Monday.

Junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., playing his final game at UF, set a career high with three sacks. Poole had an interception, a fumble recovery and forced fumble, safety Marcus Maye had eight tackles and two pass break-ups, and little-used running back Adam Lane was named Birmingham Bowl MVP with a career-high 109 yards and one touchdown on 16 rushes.

Durkin won his first game as a head coach and leaves the program in high regard after a five-year stint, one year as an assistant under Urban Meyer and the last four under Muschamp.

"Words can’t describe how I feel about this team," Durkin said. "I’m so happy for our players to get that win. It was just a great feeling of pride and happiness after the game."

Florida Gators interim head coach D.J. Durkin is presented the trophy after winning the Birmingham Bowl against East Carolina.

Shortly after accepting the game’s MVP award, Lane stood in Florida’s victorious locker room still trying to wrap his head around the day’s events.

He said he wasn’t sure how much he would play Saturday, but with regulars Matt Jones nursing a sore shoulder and Kelvin Taylor used sparingly, Lane rushed twice as many times as he had in the season’s first 11 games. (He had eight carries prior to Saturday).

"Not at all," Lane replied when asked if he expected to play as much as he did. "I’ve been playing since I’ve been 7 years old, so I looked at it like that. I’ve been playing my whole life, so I might as well keep playing. I just tried to help the team win."

Lane wasn’t the only young player to stand out with McElwain watching from a booth in the press box.

Freshman quarterback Treon Harris threw for 123 yards and two touchdowns, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to freshman running back Brandon Powell, and sophomore receiver Ahmad Fulwood took a short pass and raced 86 yards for a second-half score, Florida’s longest offensive play of the season.

"We had young guys making plays all over the place," Durkin said. "There’s great talent here, and I think even more important is the amount of character on the team. This would’ve been an easy situation not to go out and compete and play like we did."

The Gators won despite East Carolina running 101 offensive plays and outgaining them by nearly 200 yards (536 total yards to UF’s 339).

Carden finished 34 of 66 for 427 yards, and Hardy hauled in 11 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown.

However, in the end, it was Hargreaves who made the biggest catch of the game to lift the Gators to their first bowl win in three years.

"We’ve got a lot of guys around here who love each other and love football," Taylor said. "When you put that together — the record didn’t quite show what we could have really done; we could have done some special things — but in the end, we came out on top."