Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl breakdown: East Carolina vs. Ohio

Justin Hardy (2) and Shane Carden (5) have anchored an impressive East Carolina offense this season.
Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images

East Carolina (9-3) vs. Ohio (7-5)
Dec. 23, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN)

BOWL SCHEDULE: Matchups, dates for every 2013-14 pairing

Reason to watch: East Carolina flew under the radar this season despite boasting one of the more impressive résumés of any non-AQ conference school. The Pirates held their own against power-conference foes -- or, at least, against the middle tier of the ACC. They beat North Carolina (55-31 on Sept. 28) and NC State (42-28 on Nov. 23) and narrowly lost to Virginia Tech (15-10 on Sept. 14). East Carolina also has one of the nation's most explosive offenses. Led by junior quarterback Shane Carden, who completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,866 yards with 32 touchdowns, the Pirates averaged 40.4 points per game, 10th best in the FBS.

Meanwhile, after a 6-2 start, Ohio fell apart. The Bobcats dropped three straight games by scores of 30-3, 49-0 and 44-13, respectively, before closing the regular season with a 51-23 win over hapless Massachusetts. But Ohio has something to prove. Nine eligible teams didn't land a bowl invite, and some have a case for why they should have been picked over the Bobcats. That includes Toledo, which finished with a better MAC record but won't play in a postseason game. Ohio can show it deserved this chance.

Keep an eye on: East Carolina wideout Justin Hardy, who ranks fifth nationally with 105 catches. In 2012, Hardy emerged as Carden's top target. Their relationship continued to build in '13, when Hardy totaled 1,218 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

Did you know: Ohio and East Carolina had one common opponent this season: Conference USA runner-up Marshall. The Bobcats beat the Thundering Herd 34-31 on Sept. 14 in what was likely Ohio's best win of the season, while the Pirates missed a chance at a Conference USA championship berth with a 59-28 loss to Marshall on Nov. 29.

Final analysis: The Bobcats have a capable quarterback in senior Tyler Tettleton and may be able to keep pace in a high-scoring affair. They should also be able to bring some defensive pressure, as Ohio tied for 19th nationally with 34 sacks. Still, the combination of Carden and Hardy could prove too much. Both are set to return to campus next year, and a strong showing in St. Petersburg could jumpstart a special 2014 campaign. Ohio has plenty of reasons to avoid packing it in after a poor finish, but the Bobcats don't have the weapons on either side of the ball to match East Carolina.

The pick: East Carolina 38, Ohio 24

BURKE: East Carolina's Will Simmons among NFL prospects to watch in early bowls

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