BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- With new coach Jim McElwain in attendance, Florida jumped out to an early lead and hung on against East Carolina, winning the Birmingham Bowl 28-20.
The offense looked good at times, before quarterback Treon Harris got hurt, but it was the Florida defense that deserves the credit. The Gators made stop after stop in the fourth quarter and kept East Carolina out of the end zone when it mattered the most.
The win gave the SEC a winning bowl record (7-5) and helped the SEC East finish a perfect 5-0 this postseason.
Game ball goes to: Dante Fowler Jr. already declared early for the NFL, but that didn’t stop him from going all out in his final game at Florida. The junior defensive end, projected as a first-round pick, finished with three sacks, two quarterback hurries and deflected a pass late in the game with East Carolina threatening.
How the game was won: The bend-but-don’t-break philosophy worked for Florida’s defense in the second half, and the Gators sealed it with an interception by Vernon Hargreaves III in the final minutes. It was the third turnover forced by the defense. East Carolina entered Florida territory on 12 of its 16 drives and came away with only 20 points.
Stat of the game: East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden was as good as advertised in the loss. The senior finished 34-of-66 for 427 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The 427 passing yards give him 11,991 for his career and moved him up to No. 26 on the all-time list, passing names such as Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer.
Best play: After East Carolina grabbed the momentum to begin the second half, Florida needed a big play. The Gators called on wide receiver Ahmad Fulwood, and he delivered. The 6-foot-4 sophomore caught a quick screen and sprinted past the entire ECU defense on his way to an 86-yard touchdown. It was the longest touchdown at Florida since Muschamp arrived in 2011.