ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Vintavious Cooper said he could never have imagined finishing his career with nearly 200 rushing yards and most valuable player honors to boot.
That is exactly what happened as the senior ran for a career-high 198 yards and two touchdowns to lead East Carolina to a 37-20 victory over Ohio in the sixth playing of the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Monday.
"I try to contribute as much as I can to the offense and be as unselfish as possible," said Cooper. "It was a great way for the seniors to finish their careers."
In their final game after 17 seasons as a member of Conference-USA, the Pirates scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull away from the Bobcats.
"It was one of our best games with what we call complementary football," said East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill. "All three sides of the ball, offense, defense and special teams, came through for us and it was really good to get it all going in the fourth quarter."
With East Carolina trailing 20-17, Cooper's 31-yard touchdown run with 9:45 remaining in the final quarter gave the Pirates a 24-20 lead and proved to be the difference. Cooper's run capped a five-play, 71-yard drive that was aided by personal foul and interference penalties on Ohio.
"That was a critical time of the game for us," said Ohio coach Frank Solich. "We would have had them third-and-long when we had the personal foul and then we had the pass interference penalty, which was tough. We were able to get third-down conversions in the third quarter, but could not carry that into the fourth quarter. That also hurt."
East Carolina (10-3, 6-2 C-USA) opened up a little breathing room when quarterback Shane Carden lateraled to receiver Cam Worthy, who threw back to Carden in the right side of the end zone. That touchdown extended the Pirates' lead to 31-20 with 7:29 remaining.
Cooper added a 22-yard scoring run with 1:55 left in the contest.
"Our mentality is about making big plays, and we executed the best way possible on both sides of the ball," Cooper said.
The win improved East Carolina's bowl mark to 9-10. Ohio dropped to 2-6, and the loss denied Solich his 125th career win as a head coach.
Josiah Yazdani's 28-yard field goal with 13:34 remaining in the fourth quarter gave Ohio (7-6, 4-4 Mid-American Conference) its only lead of the afternoon at 20-17.
It was Yazdani who brought the Bobcats even at 17-17 with 6:42 left in the third quarter. On its second possession of the second half, Ohio chewed up nearly six minutes on a 17-play drive that yielded a 29-yard field goal by the redshirt sophomore.
It looked like East Carolina was going to run away from Ohio early. The Pirates opened the scoring by capitalizing on a Bobcats turnover. Five plays after safety Michael Dobson intercepted Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton at the East Carolina 45-yard line, Carden connected with Worthy on a 4-yard touchdown pass. The play was set up by Cooper's 34-yard run to the 4-yard line.
The Pirates took a 14-0 lead with 27 seconds remaining in the opening quarter when Breon Allen scored on a 2-yard run to cap an 11-play, 76-yard drive. East Carolina totaled 207 yards in the first quarter.
Ohio responded with touchdowns on its next two possessions. The Bobcats went 74 yards in 41 seconds and made it 14-7 when Tettleton connected with Daz Patterson on a 17-yard touchdown. After forcing a punt, backup quarterback Derrius Vick came on for his second series of the half and hooked up with Donte Foster on an 80-yard touchdown pass to knot the score at 14-14. It was the longest play in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl's brief history.
"We got into a little bit of a rhythm," said Foster. "In the second half we could see they were getting tired and tried to speed up our game. We just didn't respond the way I wish we would have."
The Pirates were the ones to respond, especially when it mattered most.
"At halftime we talked about execution and making sure we make the routine plays," said McNeill. "We believed in what we were doing and I told them to keep chopping away. I was proud of our finish."
Notes: QB Shane Carden became East Carolina's single-season leader in passing yards with 4,139. The previous mark was held Dominique Davis, who had 3,967 in 2010... With his third reception of the game, receiver Justin Hardy became the Pirates' career leader in receiving yards. The junior finished the season with 3,047...RB Vintavious Cooper's 34-yard run in the opening quarter put him over 1,000 for the season. He is the third East Carolina running back to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons...Ohio WR Donte Foster established a Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl record with 160 receiving yards...With 242 yards of total offense (225 passing), Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton finished his career with 10,027.