NEW ORLEANS — The common belief, as portrayed in the novel and movie “Lost Horizon,” is that you can never return to Shangri-La.
The Louisiana-Lafayette football team will try to do just that at 11 a.m. Saturday, beating the odds a year after the biggest win on the biggest stage in program history. The Ragin’ Cajuns will try to return to the utopia they discovered in last year’s New Orleans Bowl victory.
East Carolina is just happy to be back in the bowl season, a position the Pirates became accustomed to most of the past decade.
Both teams will be in familiar surroundings in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, taking part in the bowl’s customary Sun Belt vs. Conference USA matchup.
The Cajuns (8-4) are making their second New Orleans Bowl appearance in as many years, following their heart-stopping, 32-30 win over San Diego State last year. That victory — ULL drove 50 yards in the final 30 seconds to set up Brett Baer’s final-play, 50-yard field goal — came in the Cajuns’ first postseason appearance in 41 years and in their first Division I bowl game.
Coach Mark Hudspeth, who has led the once-struggling Cajuns program to a 17-8 mark in the past two seasons, knows that will be tough to top.
“You dream about taking your team to a bowl game,” he said.
“And after the final horn last year, I was just looking around the stadium, taking in the moment and knowing we actually did this. Then the next morning, you start wondering if this will ever happen again.”
ECU may have felt the same way. The Pirates (8-4) had played in five straight bowl games before the 2011 season, but a 34-27 loss to Marshall in the regular-season finale that year left ECU 5-7 and ineligible for bowl participation.
“It was important for us to get back to this point this year,” coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our bunch, the way they approached the process this year and embraced what we were trying to do as a staff.”
This season, the Pirates won five of their final six games after a 3-3 start, only falling to bowl-bound Navy in that stretch and sweeping their final five C-USA outings to finish 7-1 in conference play.
“They are plenty tough,” Hudspeth said. “They can really score in bunches. It scares you because they’ve been in some shootouts and they have some weapons. But they have more team speed than the San Diego State team we played last year, and their defensive front is bigger. They’re just bigger everywhere on defense.”
ECU has scored 40 or more points in six of its past seven outings behind quarterback Shane Carden. He has passed for 2,838 yards and 21 touchdowns and added eight rushing scores.
But the Cajuns can score, too. Last year’s bowl MVP, Blaine Gautier, has missed most of the season with a broken wrist, but sophomore Terrance Broadway has been more than successful. Broadway, whose first ULL start came in game five against Tulane, was the Sun Belt’s leader in total offense. He hit on 65.4 percent of his throws for 2,526 yards and 16 touchdowns; he also was ULL’s second-leading rusher with 661 yards, a 6.4-yard average and eight scores.
“He is a true dual threat,” McNeill said, “and it helps him that they’ve got great receivers that can make plays after the catch. And their offensive line plays well together.”
The Cajuns offense averaged 34.8 points, scored points on 94.2 percent of its red-zone trips (49-of-52) and posted touchdowns on 40 of those chances. With Broadway in charge, the Cajuns had 500 or more yards in three of their final five games.
“Terrance has really come into his own,” Hudspeth said. “After week four when it looked like the wheels were coming off a little bit (in back-to-back losses to North Texas and Sun Belt champion Arkansas State), he kept his head up, and we were able to keep the wheels on the bus and win four out of five.”
ULL will hope to extend its special-teams success in the Superdome. In addition to the winning kick last year, Baer dropped two punts inside the San Diego State 1-yard line, the Cajuns were successful with a fake punt and they got an 87-yard Darryl Surgent punt return for their second score.
“If we don’t get all those plays, we may not be going for a second straight win here,” Hudspeth said.
The Pirates, making their first New Orleans Bowl appearance, will play in the Superdome for the second time in just over a month: They beat Tulane 28-23 on Nov. 17. The Cajuns also topped Tulane this year, taking a 41-13 win Oct. 6 in Lafayette, but the Green Wave was without record-setting quarterback Ryan Griffin.
This time, the Superdome will provide a decided home-field advantage for the Cajuns, whose followers helped the bowl set an attendance record of 42,841 last year. As of Monday, more than 46,000 tickets had been distributed.
“It’ll be loud,” McNeill said. “This is pretty much a home game for Mark and his bunch, but we prepare for noise. We know there’s going to be a big and loud crowd, and we’re ready for that.”