East Carolina thought it had a pretty good opportunity to win a third Conference USA championship in six years before leaving for the American Athletic Conference next season.
The Pirates, though, blew that chance in their regular-season finale, and they'll instead settle for trying to secure the program's second double-digit win season as they meet Ohio in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl at St. Petersburg, Fla., on Monday.
East Carolina (9-3) was riding a five-game winning streak behind its high-powered offense before losing 59-28 on Nov. 29 at Marshall, which wrapped up the East Division and a spot in the conference title game.
"I am proud of that group," coach Ruffin McNeill told the Pirates' official website. "I've been coaching 33 years. It's rare when you have a chance to win nine games but we have a chance to win 10. ... We have done a lot of things that nobody thought we could do."
The Pirates, who went 11-1 in 1991, are led by Conference USA MVP Shane Carden. The junior quarterback is sixth in the FBS with 3,866 passing yards and eighth with 32 touchdown passes while leading the nation with a 71.0 completion percentage.
He paces an offense that ranks 10th in the FBS with 40.4 points and 331.5 passing yards per game, and Ohio coach Frank Solich knows his team's main focus must be on slowing down Carden.
"You don't have great passing stats without having a great quarterback that's poised," Solich said. "He's a great thrower, is knowledgeable about the game and reads things well."
Carden's top target is wide receiver Justin Hardy, fifth in the nation with 105 receptions for 1,218 yards and eight TDs. Vintavious Cooper leads the way on the ground with 995 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, one more than Carden has run for.
"They'll also spread people out which enables them to get the ball to their receivers, guys that are playmakers," Solich said. "Also when you spread people out, you can generally piece together a pretty good running game. Just looking at them, they have talent. They're big and physical on both sides of the ball."
The Bobcats (7-5) of the Mid-American Conference have a pretty good quarterback of their own in fifth-year senior Tyler Tettleton, who has passed for 8,769 yards and 66 touchdowns since taking over as the starter in 2011.
Tettleton, though, struggled down the stretch this season. He averaged 253.6 passing yards and threw 17 TDs and six interceptions during a 6-2 start, but totaled 351 yards with one touchdown and two picks as Ohio dropped its next three while being held to a total of 16 points.
Tettleton bounced back in the regular-season finale, passing for 243 yards and two TDs in a 51-23 rout of Massachusetts on Nov. 29.
He's confident the Bobcats can match East Carolina's passing attack.
"That's the plan. We're hoping to go into this thing and put in a good game plan," Tettleton said. "... Hopefully we'll have a chance to score a lot of points and see what happens. We've done a good job the past couple years of putting a good game plan together and executing and having a good showing. We'll see."
This is the fifth straight bowl trip for the Bobcats under Solich, and they've won the last two after beating Louisiana-Monroe 45-14 in last year's Independence Bowl behind Tettleton's 331 yards and two touchdowns.
"It means a lot, especially for this senior class to be here all five years and have a chance to go to a bowl game every single year," Tettleton said. "It's awesome and hopefully we can win three straight for this university."
East Carolina has lost four straight bowl games, falling 43-34 to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl last December.
"The kids are excited about going to participate in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, really excited," McNeill said. "Great opponent. Coach Solich is a really good football coach."
Ohio, looking for its third win over a C-USA team this season after defeating North Texas and Marshall in September, has dropped both meetings with East Carolina. The Pirates won 21-14 in the last matchup in 1998.
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