East Carolina, Florida aim to finish on better note
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) The Florida Gators are still keeping the focus on the same thing after weathering a coaching change and disappointing season: Each other.
The Gators can secure a winning record and usher in the Jim McElwain era on a positive note with a victory over East Carolina in Saturday's Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field. They'll be led by interim coach and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin while McElwain, who replaced the fired Will Muschamp, will be in a spectator role.
''We just decided we wanted to play for each other, no matter what the circumstances were,'' Florida center Max Garcia said Friday. ''That's really what it's all about, just playing for the guy next to you and just being unselfish. Just locking arms and circling the wagon. That's what we talked about when Muschamp was here and that's what we're talking about now.''
The Gators (6-5) say there's no shortage of motivation. That goes from the coaches, players and alumni down to ''our cheerleaders, our mascot,'' linebacker Mike Taylor said. Making an impression on McElwain, who will attend the game, could also be a big deal to returning players.
The Pirates (8-5) have motivation, too. They have a chance to win back-to-back bowl games for the first time since a three-game streak from 1963-65 and beat a Southeastern Conference team.
East Carolina pits one of the nation's most prolific passing games against a Florida team that has sputtered on offense but been mostly strong defensively.
Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said he's been watching the Gators since Steve Spurrier was stalking the sidelines and Bob Stoops was defensive coordinator.
''We like the competition,'' McNeill said. ''We know we're facing a very talented team.
''The most well-rounded, talented team that we've faced. The SEC has earned that. We want to earn it too. You earn it brick by brick and you don't microwave it.''
Here are some things to watch in the Florida-East Carolina game:
QUARTERBACK DISPARITY: Florida's dual-threat Treon Harris has started the last five games, but East Carolina's Shane Carden has a huge edge in experience and numbers. Carden has passed for 4,309 yards and 28 touchdowns, compared to Harris' 896 and seven in limited action and a much more conservative offense.
MISSING PLAYERS: Both teams will be without key players. Florida must replace suspended defensive tackle Darious Cummings and one of the nation's top kick and punt returners, Andre Debose. Debose left the team under a ''mutual agreement'' with coaches, Durkin said. He said a number of players could play roles in the return game, while Caleb Brantley will start on the defensive line.
ECU running back Breon Allen sustained a leg injury in practice this week and won't play. Defensive tackle Terry Williams and safety Domonique Lennon are both ineligible.
ON THE REBOUND: Both teams will have to show some mettle after tough losses to end the regular season. The Gators lost by five points to Florida State thanks to missed opportunities and the Seminoles' 94-yard interception return. East Carolina fell to Central Florida on a Hail Mary.
INTERIM BASIS: McNeill can relate to Durkin's situation. He was named Texas Tech's interim coach in late December after the suspension of Mike Leach. McNeill has spoken to Durkin and the wives have also talked. Tech beat Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl.
GOT YOU COVERED?: East Carolina's prolific receiver Justin Hardy and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III are among the top players in their positions. Hardy says such a matchup ''just gives you a chance to showcase what you can do as a player and as a team when you go against a secondary like Florida.''