As it often has for the program over the last four seasons, it took a defensive play to send the Florida Gators to victory in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl on Saturday afternoon at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.
Florida (7-5) triumphed 28-20 over the East Carolina Pirates (8-5) despite being outscored in the second half and outgained 536-339 on the afternoon.
Gators sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III intercepted Pirates signal caller Shane Carden in the end zone with 1:20 remaining, ending ECU’s bid at a comeback victory while sending UF to its first bowl win since the 2011 season.
East Carolina took it to Florida first, ending a 12-play, 78-yard drive with a three-yard pitch-and-catch from quarterback Shane Carden to wide receiver Justin Hardy, who celebrated his score with a Gator Chomp. ECU 12 plays, 78 yards, ending on a 3-yard TD pass from Shane Carden to Justin Hardy, who celebrated with a Gator Chomp.
The Gators’ offense stalled early, and the Pirates looked prepared to charge down the field again, picking up a 3rd and 14 with a 15-yard draw by running back Chris Hariston. Florida’s defense changed the momentum, however, with junior defensive back Brian Poole intercepting Carden and returning the ball 29 yards for a touchdown, tying the contest at 7-7.
A blown up fourth-down conversion attempt by Hargreaves got the Gators the ball back in good field position, and Florida capitalized with a four-play, 68-yard scoring drive. Redshirt freshman RB Adam Lane Jr. was responsible for all four plays on the possession, charging 48 yards down the field on his first touch, three yards on his second, 15 yards on his third and into the end zone from two yards out on his fourth, registering his first-career touchdown in the process.
Freshman QB Treon Harris led the Gators on their third scoring drive, starting things off by picking up a first down on 3rd and 17 with a 24-yard quarterback keeper. Following a pass interference call that helped Florida move down the field, Harris hit freshman RB Brandon Powell for a 13-yard touchdown to cap a 13-play, 80-yard drive that put UF ahead 21-7.
The Gators came up with another big defensive play on their next series after allowing the Pirates to drive 68 yards down to Florida’s one-yard line. Freshman defensive lineman Gerald Willis blew up QB Kurt Benkert as he tried to cross the goal line, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Poole. ECU missed a 42-yard field goalless than a minute before halftime, sending UF into the break with a 21-7 advantage.
Florida allowed East Carolina to fight its way back into the game after the half with Harris throwing a bad interception down the middle of the field on UF’s opening possession. Carden took advantage, completing a 66-yard bubble screen to Hardy before finding WR Cam Worthy in the end zone for a touchdown to reduce ECU’s deficit to 21-14.
Needing an immediate response, the Gators got exactly that on their ensuing possession. Faced with 3rd and 5 at its on 14-yard line, Florida saw Harris complete a screen to sophomore WR Ahmad Fulwood, who accelerated down the sideline and to the house for an 86-yard touchdown that put UF back on top 28-14 early in the third quarter.
A Lane fumble at midfield gave the Pirates new life, but the Gators defense was able to hold despite committing an illegal hands to the face penalty that allowed East Carolina to take the ball inside Florida’s 10-yard line.
ECU settled for a 24-yard field goal on that possession and did the same a couple of possessions later, cutting UF’s lead down to eight points with 11:55 to play.
Redshirt junior QB Jeff Driskel took over for Harris midway through the third quarter as Harris began dealing with knee and elbow pain. The Gators had four consecutive three-and-out possessions under Driskel, and just as he was beginning to move the ball, sophomore WR Chris Thompson fumbled while trying to gain additional yardage following a reception. Luckily for Florida, a third sack by junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. stopped East Carolina in its tracks as it attempted to make the most of Thompson’s turnover.
The Pirates got one more opportunity, taking over at their own 42-yard line with 3:28 to play. A missed tackle allowed Hardy, who would have been tackled for no gain, to move 24 yards down the field on a pass from Carden. ECU then lucked out again, turning a fumble forced by Poole into a net 18-yard gain as the Pirates recovered the ball at the UF 5-yard line. East Carolina was unable to capitalize, however, as Hargreaves iced the contest with an interception in the end zone on a fade route.
Lane, named the game’s Most Valuable Player, had a career day with 16 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown. Harris finished 5-of-11 for 123 yards with two touchdowns and an interception (adding 41 yards on nine carries), and Driskel completed 8-of-17 passes for 48 yards in his final game at UF. Driskel had the ball in his hand at the end of the contest, taking a bootleg nine yards to ice the game.
Florida lost a number of players to injury in the contest including Harris (knee, elbow) and junior linebacker Antonio Morrison (knee), neither of whom returned to the field after suffering his ailment.
With the victory, the Gators improved to 21-20 all-time in bowl games with their first victory since the 2012 Gator Bowl against Ohio State.