Brian Polian has no preconceptions about bowl-game neutrality.
In his first bowl as a head coach, he knows that, regardless of how the scoreboard lists the teams Saturday at the New Orleans Bowl, his Nevada football squad is the visitor.
“No question, this is a road game for us,” the Wolf Pack coach said as his 7-5 team prepared to meet an 8-4 Louisiana-Lafayette squad that has made the Mercedes-Benz Superdome its postseason home of late. “It’s going to be loud, and our fans are going to be outnumbered.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns will make their fourth straight appearance in the New Orleans Bowl when the teams kick off bowl season with a brunch-time 10 a.m. kickoff. UL-Lafayette’s fan base has helped the bowl set attendance records each of the past three years, including last year’s high of 54,728. Not by coincidence, the Cajuns won each of those three games.
“For our older guys, this is their fourth year here,” said Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth, whose squad beat San Diego State, East Carolina and Tulane in their previous three trips to the bowl. “A lot of our kids are from Louisiana and grew up wanting to play where the Saints play and playing their high school championship games here. The Superdome has been good to a lot of our guys.”
The crowd count Saturday may not reach the 48,679 that the bowl has averaged the past three years — mostly because of the early kickoff — but Hudspeth is hoping the building will be good luck for his team again. If it is, UL-Lafayette would make NCAA history as the first team to win the same bowl four straight years.
The Wolf Pack (7-5) plans to have a say-so in that after bouncing back from a 4-8 mark last year. Nevada won four of six to end the season — three of those wins coming on the road — to land one of the Mountain West Conference’s bowl slots in Polian’s second year.
Nevada posted significant wins over Pac-12 member Washington State (24-13) and at independent power BYU (42-35) during a season that ended with a 49-27 dismantling of state rival UNLV. The Wolf Pack’s losses may have been even more impressive: All five came to bowl-bound teams, including late losses to Fiesta Bowl-bound Arizona (35-28) and Boise State (51-46).
“We’ve played a lot of close games,” Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “We’re so young that we’re going to make some mistakes. But we’ve been preparing for this, and we’re excited about the opportunity.”
Fajardo threw for 2,374 yards and 18 scores and likely will go over the 1,000-yard rushing mark in the bowl (997 yards and 13 scores). The senior is one of two players in Football Bowl Subdivision history to rush for 3,000 and pass for 9,000 career yards — the other being San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a Nevada product himself.
But the fifth-year senior and fourth-year starter is surrounded by youth. Nevada is the ninth-youngest of the nation’s 128 FBS teams, with seven true freshmen seeing action and 12 freshmen in key roles.
Hudspeth knows the Wolf Pack triggerman isn’t among those lacking experience. Fajardo is third among active FBS players in total offense (12,968 yards) and is the big reason Nevada is third nationally in red-zone efficiency, second in fourth-quarter scoring margin and best in scoring points off opposing turnovers.
“He’s a dangerous guy,” Hudspeth said. “I don’t know if we’ve played a quarterback this good, but they’ve got lots of guys that can hurt you. They remind me a lot of Boise in that they’ve got a good quarterback, good running backs, a solid offensive line and the defensive line is their strength on defense.”
Boise handled the visiting Cajuns 34-9 in September, when UL-Lafayette started 1-3. In the past two months, the Cajuns won six in a row and seven of eight on the way to a second-place finish in the Sun Belt.
Most of the depth chart that survived last year’s last-minute 24-21 bowl win over Tulane returns to the Dome on Saturday, but the happiest returnee could be senior quarterback Terrance Broadway.
The Baton Rouge native became UL-Lafayette’s career offensive leader with 9,186 yards and ranks among school leaders in every total offense and passing category. He was the MVP in the 2012 New Orleans Bowl win over East Carolina but was hampered in last year’s game by a broken arm suffered three weeks earlier.
“The greatest feeling is just to come back here and be healthy again,” said Broadway, who threw for 2,068 yards and 12 scores and rushed for 646 yards this year. “I knew last year I wasn’t going to be full speed, but the coaches did a great job, and all the guys rallied around me.”
Broadway is part of a 20-member senior class that wraps up their careers Saturday. That group has posted 35 wins over four years, easily the most in school history. Eleven of them will be starting, including guard Daniel Quave in his record 52nd consecutive start.
A sophomore grabbed the season-ending headlines, though: Tailback Elijah McGuire was named Sun Belt Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year. He has 1,165 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing and a team-high 40 receptions. He, Broadway and fellow running back Alonzo Harris pace an offense that committed only three turnovers in its last eight games — and one that will go up against a Nevada defense that forced 26 turnovers.
“You like playing against teams that are either not good offensively or not good defensively,” Hudspeth said. “That’s not the case here. (Nevada is) a very multiple offensive team that can spread it out, and their defense has a bunch of all-conference guys. They’ve been in bowls eight of the last nine years, so we know this is going to be a huge challenge for us.”