By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — While a weekend of sun and 80-degree temperatures at the beach in Florida is nice, East Carolina and Ohio haven’t lost sight of their mission in the Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl.
The Pirates (9-3) and Bobcats (7-5) not only are representing their respective conferences, but are hoping to end the season on a high note when they meet today in the annual pre-Christmas game at Tropicana Field, home of major league baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
The teams feature pass-oriented, high-scoring offenses led by quarterbacks Shane Carden of East Carolina and Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton, which could make for an entertaining matchup.
“It’s good to have fun, but this is a business trip,” East Carolina kicker Warren Harvey said. “We’re here to win.”
A victory would get the Pirates of Conference USA to 10 victories, the second highest total in school history. Ohio, the second straight Mid-American Conference team to close its season in St. Petersburg, is trying to finish with at least eight wins for the fourth consecutive season.
The Bobcats, in their ninth season under former Nebraska coach Frank Solich, were invited after the American Athletic Conference was unable to fulfill its bowl commitments. Ball State made the trip a year ago, losing to Central Florida after the Big East couldn’t fill a slot in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s.
East Carolina’s offense begins with Carden, who completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,866 yards, 32 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while also rushing for 10 TDs. Wide receiver Justin Hardy has 105 receptions for 1,218 yards and eight TDs, while running back Vintavious Cooper is five yards shy of rushing for 1,000 for the second straight season.
“Frustrating the quarterback is going to be the key. We want to make sure he doesn’t feel comfortable, we do not want to allow him to sit back in the pocket,” Ohio cornerback Travis Carrie said. “If you allow him to sit back in the pocket, he will pick you apart.”
Ohio will counter with Tettleton, the Bobcats’ career passing leader with 8,897. He’s thrown for 2,623 yards, 20 TDs and nine interceptions this year.
• Five reasons the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl could be an entertaining game, even though oddsmakers favor East Carolina by two touchdowns:
HOLDING THEIR OWN: Ohio owns a pair of victories over Conference USA teams, beating North Texas and eventual C-USA East Division winner Marshall at home in September. East Carolina lost its regular season finale 59-28 at Marshall, the only common opponent the Pirates shared with the Bobcats.
SACK CITY: One of the key to the game figures to be getting defensive pressure on the quarterback. East Carolina led Conference USA in rushing defense has 35 sacks. Ohio has 34 sacks, four shy of the school record.
PLAYMAKERS: Like Carden, Tettleton is surrounded by some impressive playmakers. Wide receiver Donte’ Foster has 63 receptions for 858 yards and six touchdowns, while running back Beau Blankenship has rushed for 844 yards and five TDs while closing in on the 3,000-yard career rushing mark.
SUCCESSFUL COACHES: East Carolina’s Ruffin McNeill has his alma mater in a bowl game for the third time in his four seasons. Solich took over at Ohio in 2005, and the Bobcats have made six of their eight overall bowl appearances under him. They’ve won the past two.
FLORIDA FUN: East Carolina is playing in a bowl in Florida for the first time since 1965, when the Pirates beat Maine in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando. On Ohio’s last trip to the Sunshine State for a bowl game, the unbeaten Bobcats lost to Richmond in the 1968 Tangerine Bowl.