December 18, 2014

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) Shane Carden has spent the past five years flinging footballs to Justin Hardy at East Carolina.

Now one final test looms in the last college game for one of the nation's most productive pitch-and-catch combos.

The Pirates (8-4) face Florida (6-5) in the Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3.

Hardy set the NCAA record with 376 career receptions, and leads the nation this season with 9.17 catches per game. Carden ranks second in the Bowl Subdivision with an average of nearly 367 yards of total offense.

They teamed to help East Carolina rise to No. 21 in the national rankings before losing three of their last five.

Carden on Thursday called their finale ''bittersweet'' because of their rise from the scout team to the all-American Athletic Conference first team.

''I'm definitely going to miss the guy,'' Carden said.

And not just because they make putting up big yardage and point totals look easy.

Carden and Hardy - whose names have become so intertwined during the years that they've been nicknamed ''Cardy'' - have hooked up for 27 career touchdowns, the most among any quarterback-receiver combinations in the FBS.

They were part of the first group of newcomers for coach Ruffin McNeill when he returned to his alma mater in 2010. The coach was referring to a group of six seniors that included Carden and Hardy when he said ''I absolutely adore these guys.''

''To give them an opportunity for us to hang out for two more weeks, I'm going to cherish every second,'' McNeill said.

Hardy - who walked onto the East Carolina team that first year and earned a scholarship a year later - broke the FBS career receptions record of 349 set by Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles in 2011. Hardy took that mark over against Tulane on Nov. 22, spent the next two games adding to it and earned a spot on The Associated Press All-America third team.

He quickly formed a bond with Carden while they worked on the scout team as true freshmen. Carden took over the starting job early in the 2012 season and almost immediately began rewriting the school's record book with Hardy as his top target.

Carden - the AAC's offensive player of the year - owns the school's career passing records for yards (11,564) and touchdowns (84). Of the 12 400-yard passing performances in program history, Carden has eight of them, and five have come this season.

''We've been through a lot of things together,'' said offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who like Carden and McNeill arrived in 2010. ''I've coached him hard - there's probably been times he didn't like me too much. ... There's a lot of mutual respect, and I think the results speak for themselves.''

And now they're preparing for the exact type of matchup that always seems to bring out the best in East Carolina: In the Gators they're facing a big-name program from a power conference.

These chip-on-the-shoulder Pirates knocked off Virginia Tech and North Carolina in consecutive weeks in September and Hardy says beating Florida - and the nation's No. 9 total defense - would be a fitting way to go out. The Gators will be without defensive end Bryan Cox Jr., who had hip surgery earlier this week. Cox has four sacks and 29 tackles.

''Any time you get a chance to go against a power-five school, no matter who it is, that's just getting a chance to showcase what we can do,'' Hardy said. ''We've really got to get respect, and this is the way we can do it.''

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Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joedyap

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