Dec. 23, 2013
By Bill Woodward
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -In a season marked by memorable and noteworthy victories, East Carolina's football team ended 2013 with a victory that was all that, and more.
The Pirates used a fourth-quarter offensive flurry spearheaded by senior running back Vintavious Cooper and a ball-hawking defense to stop Ohio, 37-20, on Monday in the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field.
Cooper rushed for a career-high and Beef `O' Brady's Bowl record 198 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns as the Pirates scored 20 fourth-quarter points to erase a 20-17 Ohio lead.
With the win, the Pirates snapped a four-game losing streak in bowls and finished 10-3 - winning 10 games for just the second time in program history (the 1991 team won 11 games).
Cooper had the biggest day on a record-setting afternoon for several Pirates, bolting for a 31-yard TD that gave ECU the lead for good at 24-20 with 9:45 left in the game. He capped the purple-splashed victory with a 22-yard scoring run with 1:55 left for the final victory margin.
"I can think of the words to describe how excited I am," Cooper said after being named the ECU MVP for the game. "It means everything to me to go out like this with the seniors on this team, a great group of guys. It's for them, and it's for the Pirate Nation.
"It's the first time since 1991 (that ECU has won 10 games) and it was definitely past due. We worked hard for it. I can speak for every guy on the team that it is definitely something we wanted."
The Pirates jumped to a 14-0 lead after the first quarter, but were held to a field goal over the next two periods as the Bobcats (7-6) rallied to take the lead early in the fourth quarter.
After Ohio took the lead at 20-17 with 13:34 remaining in the game, the Bobcats executed a successful onside kick. The East Carolina defense, which intercepted three passes on the afternoon and limited Ohio to 107 yards rushing, came up with a big defensive stand.
The Bobcats got one first down, but bogged down at the Pirates' 28 after three-straight incomplete passes. Ohio kicker Josiah Yazdani, who had not missed a field goal all season, was wide left on a 45-yard attempt.
After that, it was all Pirates.
"We always talk about playing the next play," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "That was a good call by (Ohio) coach (Frank) Solich. But it was a greater job by our defense, understanding the situation and rising to the occasion. Like all year long, they did not flinch. I was proud of them."
The Pirates took over after the missed field goal and marched down the field. Cooper burst through the left side and streaked into the end zone to turn the momentum completely around.
"Coop did a good job," McNeill said. "I am proud of Coop and proud of the offensive line."
Cooper said he got a pep talk from offensive line coach Brandon Jones midway through the second half.
"He told me, `When you get in, we are going to hand you the ball and you have got to hit it. We are going to feed you the ball and you have to be able to sustain it and hold up for the whole game. We are depending on you,' " Cooper said. "Tonight, I was thankful and blessed enough to have the opportunity to be able to carry the ball a few times and go out with a big game."
Cooper carried it 25 times, averaging an impressive 7.9 yards per carry.
McNeill was emotional after the game, wiping away tears as he accepted the bowl trophy and thanking all the players, his coaching staff and the Pirates fans in attendance.
"It's an honor first of all to be part of East Carolina," the former Pirate player and fourth-year coach at ECU said. "It's about pride and tradition, a group of people, family. It's about one group first, the players. I love you guys."
Then he addressed the cheering ECU fans and the support they have shown the team the entire season.
"Thanks to all of y'all for coming," McNeill said. "Thanks for helping us win the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl. Champions, y'all. Champions."
After the game, McNeill deflected the credit to his players and coaching staff.
"I was asked what I want for Christmas and I replied, I got what I wanted for Christmas," McNeill said. "I have 125 of my sons here in St. Petersburg where I can watch all of them. Two, I got all my friends and uncles on my staff. I have my family here, two of my dearest friends in life and my mentor, my brothers ... the only one not here is my pop, but he's here, he's right here (pointing to a wristband)."
Hardy, a junior, caught a bowl-record nine passes for 66 yards to snap the ECU career receptions yardage record. He pushed his total to 3,047 yards breaking Dwayne Harris' mark of 3,001 set from 2007-10. For Hardy, it was about one number - the 10th victory for the team.
"Being the second team to get 10 wins in this program, that is great," Hardy said. "All the guys working and putting their heads together, having that mentality that we have to go out there and win. To actually do it is big-time."
Carden, also a junior, completed 29 of 45 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown to set a single-season passing record with 4,139 yards (breaking Dominique Davis' mark of 3,967 set in 2010). He said the 10-win season would always be special.
There was the first victory at Chapel Hill since 1978, the first time in program history that the Pirates defeated UNC and NC State in the same season, and the capper in St. Pete on Monday.
"This is going to be a season I am always going to look back and smile on," Carden said. "We beat two in-state schools and we won 10 games. We won the bowl. That is something I will have for the rest of my life. You can't take that away. These guys that I played with, we'll all have it the rest of your lives. It's awesome."
Carden also caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, throwing a long lateral to wide receiver Cam Worthy and then grabbing the pass from Worthy in the end zone between two Ohio defenders for a 14-yard score, that gave the Pirates a 31-20 lead at the 7:29 mark.
"We had that play in practice for a few weeks," Carden said. "Obviously, it's a little more open in practice. I went up and had a (heck) of a pass thrown to me and made the catch."
It was that kind of a game for the Pirates, and that kind of season.
One that ended with a big No. 10.