St. Petersburg, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The East Carolina Pirates will try to end their postseason woes as they take on the Ohio University Bobcats in the Beef'O'Brady's Bowl at Tropicana Field.
East Carolina was defeated, 59-28, by Marshall in its regular-season finale. The loss prevented the Pirates from making a trip to the Conference USA Championship game and left them with a 9-3 overall record. Coach Ruffin McNeill led his alma mater to wins over North Carolina and NC State which marked the first time the school has notched victories over both of its instate rivals in the same campaign.
"I'm proud of the way we have been resilient all year long," McNeill said. "This team has faced a lot of adversity and they just kept bouncing back. This team has done some special things."
ECU has qualified for a bowl game in seven of the last eight years, but has lost four straight and six of its last seven bowl games. The Pirates suffered a 43-34 setback to Louisiana in the New Orleans Bowl in 2012.
The Bobcats coasted to a 45-14 win over ULM last December in the Independence Bowl to improve to 2-5 all-time in bowl games. Coach Frank Solich's squad ended a three-game losing streak with a 51-23 rout of Massachusetts on Nov. 29 at Peden Stadium. With the victory, Ohio climbed back to the .500 mark in Mid- American Conference play and to a 7-5 overall record. The Bobcats took on two of the C-USA's top programs in September and managed to dispatch both North Texas and Marshall at home.
This will be the third meeting in history between ECU and Ohio. The Pirates won both previous encounters, the most recent of which took place in 1998.
ECU, which will be joining the American Athletic Conference next season, will be a competitor in the tougher league due to its unstoppable offensive attack. The Pirates' averages of 40.4 points and 331.5 passing yards per game rank 10th nationally.
"They are a very fast paced team, just like Marshall," said Ohio senior linebacker Keith Moore. "They run around 90 or 100 plays a game. We've made it our job to hurry up to the ball and get back to the line of scrimmage for the next play."
Junior quarterback Shane Carden was named the C-USA's Most Valuable Player after amassing a league-best 3,886 yards, connecting on an FBS-best 71 percent of his throws. Carden connected with 10 different Pirates for touchdown passes this year and threw for 32 scores to go along with 10 rushing TDs.
Carden's success under center this season has come in large part due to the stellar play of junior wideout Justin Hardy, who has caught three or more passes in all 35 games of his career. The star wide receiver was a First-Team All-C-USA selection for the second year in a row after he set school records with 105 receptions and 1,218 receiving yards. Freshman Isaiah Jones also plays a big role in the passing game, tallying 556 yards and five TDs on 54 catches. Despite ECU's pass heavy attack, senior tailback Vintavious Cooper enters the bowl game just five yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark and is tied for third in the conference with 11 rushing scores.
Jones had a breakout performance at Marshall, finishing with 123 yards on nine catches. Carden had his worst outing of the season as he was picked off three times and failed to throw any touchdown passes. The Pirates' defensive unit also had a forgettable performance. The Thundering Herd racked up 539 yards of total offense with 267 yards and five TDs coming on the ground.
ECU still finished the regular season atop the C-USA leader board in rushing defense at 117.5 ypg. McNeill's defense has a pair of standout senior leaders in linebacker Derrell Johnson and defensive back Damon Magazu. Johnson registered a team-high 79 total stops including 13.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Magazu recorded 75 tackles and picked off four passes.
Johnson and Magazu will try to contain Ohio's senior tandem of Tyler Tettleton and Beau Blankenship. In his third year as the full-time starter under center, Tettleton passed for 2,623 yards and 20 TDs with nine interceptions. The senior quarterback was sacked only 12 times after being taken down 49 times over the previous two seasons.
Tettleton spearheaded the charge for the Bobcats in their season-ending victory over the Minutemen with 243 yards and two scores on 18-of-27 efficiency. Blankenship, who rushed for 1,604 yards and 15 TDs as a junior, picked up 124 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Although he was one of the MAC's elite tailbacks in 2012, Blankenship has 844 rushing yards on the season entering his final collegiate game. Senior wide receiver Donte Foster is pacing the team with 63 catches, 858 yards and six TDs. Chase Cochran and Matt Waters are tied for second on the squad with 32 receptions each.
Ohio was in the middle of the pack in its conference offensively with averages of 28 points and 374.8 total yards per outing. The Bobcats' special teams unit was one of the most dynamic in the league though, as kick returner Devin Bass and punt returner Travis Carrie were both All-MAC First Team selections.
Defensively, Solich's unit has been sporadic. Prior to taking down UMass, the Bobcats were outscored, 123-16, during a three-game losing streak. None of their wins in MAC play came over opponents with winning records. They allowed an average of 26.7 points per game and 4.4 yards per carry on the season. Ohio's foes achieved 19.8 first downs per game, which is the third lowest average among MAC schools. Sophomore linebacker Ben Russell was an anchor for the unit with 82 total tackles and freshman defensive end Tarell Basham registered eight total sacks.