As the final seconds elapsed in East Carolina’s 37-20 victory in Monday’s Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, a jubilant bunch of Pirates football players burst onto the turf at Tropicana Field and started mobbing each other in celebration, knowing they just earned a place in history.
ECU captured 10 wins in a season for just the second time in school-history, its first bowl triumph since 2007 and broke several individual records along the way.
Junior Shane Carden became the first Pirates quarterback to eclipse 4,000 passing yards in a season (4,139) – tossing 33 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions and rushing for an addition 10 scores.
The bowl’s MVP Vintavious Cooper rushed for a career-best 198 yards and two touchdowns in his final collegiate game Monday; which adds up to 1,193 yards this season. Thus, he joins Carlester Crumpler Junior Smith as the only ECU tailbacks to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season twice.
In just three years, Justin Hardy already owns the bulk of the program’s receiving records. Most notably, he set the school-record for receptions in a season (114) and is already the all-time leader in touchdowns and receiving yards in a career.
Obviously, these marks weren’t achieved overnight. Rather, they were made goals and visualized as far back as spring practice in March.
“We have come a long way. From the off-season and camp going into the season, we just continued to work and continued to get better,” said Carden. “We had some real bumps here and there, but we just kept fighting the whole season.”
Those bumps included three players being suspended in-season, a head-scratching double-overtime loss at Tulane in which ECU missed three field goals and receiving a disheartening 59-28 beat-down in the regular season finale, costing the Pirates the East Division Championship in Conference USA.
But for every low, there were several highs.
ECU went into Kenan Stadium and dominated the North Carolina Tar Heels 55-31 for its first win in Chapel Hill since 1978. The Pirates earned a similar result in Raleigh, 42-28, against N.C. State on Nov. 23, marking the first time they have beaten the Tar Heels and Wolfpack in the same season.
| CB Josh Hawkins and defensive coordinator Rick Smith |
Another surprise was the immediate impact of a pair of freshmen receivers: Isaiah Jones and Davon Grayson. Jones caught 62 passes and five touchdowns in 2013, emerging as a true No. 2 receiver across from Hardy.
Although Grayson’s impact was limited due to a season-ending knee injury against Tulane, he stood out from the minute he stepped on the field. In his collegiate debut, the 6-2 Suffolk, Va. native caught three touchdowns against Old Dominion and pulled in another one the following week against Florida Atlantic.
The majority of ECU’s locker room would agree they slightly underachieved even though they accomplished so much – aspiring for larger goals than a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl title.
“We fell short of a conference championship, but we made a lot of other things happen along the way. We got a bunch of stars along the way,” said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill. “I’m very proud of them and to be able to do that, it taught our young men something that while having a great attitude … you can accomplish a lot of things.”
Although ECU neither captured a conference nor division championship in its final season as a member of C-USA, the future is bright for the Pirates as they prepare to join the American Athletic Conference next July.
McNeill has always said “wins are never easy” and his Pirates won a lot of games in 2013. And as the coach stood on the podium looking on his team and the large ECU contingent in St. Petersburg, he enjoyed one of the best Christmas gifts he could receive. That is until next year.