Published Thu, Dec 20, 2012 12:03 AM
Caulton Tudor – staff columnist – email@example.com
Game site aside, one of the reasons why Louisiana-Lafayette is such a solid favorite to beat East Carolina in Saturday’s New Orleans R+L Carriers Bowl can be traced to a loss by the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Florida’s 27-20 win on Nov. 20 in Gainesville did more to elevate Louisiana-Lafayette’s football profile than any of the Cajuns’ eight wins or 6-2 record in the deceptively potent Sun Belt Conference.
ULL was 5-3 overall and a 28-point underdog against the then-7th-ranked Gators, who finished 11-1 and will face Louisville in the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl.
The Cajuns outplayed Florida the entire game, leading 17-13 in the third quarter and 20-13 in the fourth. The Associated Press game account said a loss would have rated as the biggest upset loss in Florida history.
But the Gators scored with 1:42 left to tie the game and then won on the next-to-last play when Jelani Jenkins returned a blocked punt 36 yards for a touchdown with 2 seconds remaining.
Florida fans rushed the field in the sort of celebration normally reserved for big SEC wins.
“Anytime you see the seventh-ranked team in the country storm the field like they won the Super Bowl to beat you, you know you’re doing some good things,” second-year Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said in his postgame remarks.
Hudspeth’s team won its final three games, averaging almost 40 points and are favored by seven over the Conference USA Pirates (8-4, 7-1) in the noon bowl in the Superdome. ULL won the same bowl last year, 32-20 over San Diego State.
Ruffin McNeill’s third ECU team is also on a three-game win streak but narrowly so, having outscored Houston, Tulane and Marshall by a collective 141-110 after absorbing a 56-28 loss to Navy on Oct. 27.
The bowl will double as the latest referendum on the Pirates’ defense. Until a 42-35 escape at Alabama-Birmingham – one week before the wipeout against Navy – McNeill and his defensive staff were confident progress was being made.
But a double-overtime 65-59 win in Greenville over Marshall on Nov. 23 was perplexing.
Marshall scored 17 points in the fourth quarter and finished with a stunning 633 yards of offense even though lightly used freshman quarterback Blake Frohnapfel had to play much of the second half after all-star candidate Rakeem Cato was injured.
Against Cajuns quarterback Terrance Broadway, the Pirate defense will face a player with much the same skill set as Cato.
Broadway, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound transfer from Houston, completed 16 of 23 passes for 171 yards and was sacked only once in the game at Florida. In a 52-30 regular-season ending win over South Alabama, Broadway threw for 305 yards on 19 attempts and rushed for 65 yards.
It’s not a must-win game for McNeill or his program, but some degree of defensive improvement would go far in setting an upbeat mood for spring practice.
ECU’s offense – led by sophomore quarterback Shane Carden, junior running back Vin Cooper, sophomore receiver Justin Hardy and freshman receiver Jabril Solomon – could be the best in Conference USA next season.
But for the third straight season, defense remains the Pirates’ X factor.