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DeCock: Hard to imagine better ending for Pirates

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. Vintavious Cooper stood at midfield, the most valuable player trophy cradled securely in his hands. East Carolina might have had bigger dreams, bigger goals than the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, but if this was some kind of consolation prize, it didn’t feel like it. Not at all.

“We held ourselves to a higher standard,” Cooper said. “It showed today. It showed throughout the season.”

Amid the celebration on the turf at Tropicana Field, as stacks of championship hats were torn from boxes and the fight song blared in the aftermath of the 37-20 win against Ohio, the second 10-win season in school history felt pretty good. So did winning a bowl game for the first time since 2007.

“We shot for the sun and the moon,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We fell short of our conference championship, but we made a lot of other things happen along the way, grabbed a bunch of stars along the way.”

The only other time East Carolina won 10 games was 1991, also known as The Peach Bowl Season. This bowl destination wasn’t as prestigious as Atlanta was nor the opponent as compelling as N.C. State was that year, and the 11 wins in 1991 remain the school record.

But 10 wins is 10 wins, and to hit that mark for only the second time at a school with as long and proud a football tradition as East Carolina is nothing short of significant – especially when those 10 wins include bragging-rights victories at North Carolina and N.C. State.

The Pirates were close to so much more, only to stumble along the way: a narrow early loss to Virginia Tech at home, a baffling triple-overtime loss at Tulane and a disheartening blowout at Marshall with a chance to play for the Conference USA title on the line.

“We know what type of team we are, and playing against Marshall, that wasn’t us,” Cooper said. “We wanted to come out today and show exactly what type of team we’re capable of being every Saturday in and out.”

The Pirates got a chance to do exactly that during the game’s decisive sequence in the fourth quarter. Justin Hardy’s catch at the Ohio 2 was ruled incomplete after a video review. The Pirates, ahead by only four at that point, desperately needed a score, and it looked like their best chance might just have slipped away.

Coming out of the delay, McNeill gave offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley the green light to go for the win. He called for an option pass from Cam Worthy to quarterback Shane Carden, who went up in traffic to pull down the ball in the end zone.

“We had some road bumps here and there, but we just kept fighting, the whole season,” Carden said.

Carden wouldn’t let that pass slip away, and the Pirates wouldn’t let this win slip away. They safely reached double digitwins, ended their bowl skid and went home happy.

After the trophy presentation, athletics director Jeff Compher put his arm around McNeill. Neither could stop smiling. McNeill was part of a bowl win as an East Carolina player, the Independence Bowl in 1978, but had gone 0-for-2 as the Pirates’ coach.

“To get to 10 wins for only the second time in school history means a whole bunch, not just this year but for the future,” Compher said, his left arm still locked around McNeill’s shoulders. “This guy is leading us in the right direction.”

It might not have been a straight and narrow path to this point for East Carolina, but it’s hard to imagine an ending any more satisfying.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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