ST. PETERSBURG — They rewrote the record book, nearly cover to cover.
“It was up and down on the field, just like it was all season,” said Ohio sophomore receiver Daz’mond Patterson, a Plant City High graduate. “It was a bit of a roller coaster, and I know we’re disappointed we lost five games because we thought we were better in the MAC and good enough to win, but we didn’t have it.”
East Carolina (10-3) and Ohio (7-6) combined for 1,003 yards of offense, which shattered the record set last year: 782 by UCF and Ball State.
The Pirates rode record-breaking performances from quarterback Shane Carden and running back Vintavious Cooper, the game’s MVP.
Carden set records for attempts (44) and completions (29), and nine of those passes went to Justin Hardy, giving him another bowl record.
Hardy also set ECU’s career receiving yards record (3,047).
Cooper, who surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the season in the first quarter, ran for 198 yards, another bowl record, while 90 of those came in the first quarter, a bowl record for rushing yards in a quarter.
“If you had told me I would come out and have 200 yards and be the MVP — I could imagine it, but didn’t think it would actually be that way,” said the 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior running back, who also broke the bowl record for rushing attempts (25). “Coach just kept feeding me the ball, and I’m pretty full now.”
And the records just kept falling.
East Carolina rushed for a bowl-record 281 yards and ran a bowl-record 87 plays.
Ohio broke records, too, including passing yards (328). Donte Foster, who broke the bowl record for receiving yards (160), took a pass from Derrius Vick 80 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, a bowl record for the longest play from scrimmage.
“We had our fair share of big plays,” said Bobcats coach Frank Solich, who dropped to 2-3 in his team’s five straight bowl appearances. “I don’t feel like we played to our best capability the whole season, which is disappointing, but I’m proud of how the guys fought — they played their hearts out today.”
East Carolina grabbed a 14-0 lead in the first quarter as Cam Worthy pulled in a 5-yard pass from Carden and Breon Allen went 2 yards for a score.
Ohio countered in the second when Patterson grabbed a 17-yard pass for his first receiving touchdown this season, and the 80-yard touchdown by Foster.
ECU took a 17-14 lead into halftime behind a 41-yard field goal by Warren Harvey.
“I knew that we have to get into our OPAAT — One Play At A Time — mentality,” Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We had to keep chopping away late in the game and the guys have always done what they’ve been asked to do. They have been selfishly unselfish to get here.”
Ohio took a 20-17 lead in the third thanks to 29- and 28-yard field goals by Josiah Yazdani, who also executed a perfect onside kick the Bobcats recovered, but failed to capitalize on.
Then the Pirates turned to Cooper and Carden to close out the game.
After Cooper scored his first touchdown from 31 yards to make it 24-20, ECU pulled out a trick play. On a double-pass play, Carden threw it to Worthy, who then hit a double-covered Carden in the end zone for a 14-yard pass and a 31-20 advantage.
“Sometimes just got to throw it up and Cam’s going to make a play. Sometimes he’s going to throw it up to me and I’m going to make a play,” said Carden, who also set ECU’s single-season passing record (4,139).
Cooper added a late 21-yard touchdown run to seal the win, but ECU’s Michael Dobson set a bowl record for tackles in a game (14).
Even though McNeill got an early Christmas present — his first bowl win as East Carolina’s head coach — he also was happy to finish the season on a high note with his family.
“Everyone asked what I wanted for Christmas and I said every time I already got what I want,” McNeill added. “I had 125 of my sons here with me in St. Petersburg to play a bowl game, win or lose. I have my family here. This is all I wanted. The win was, which I’m very happy about, extra.”