LAFAYETTE — Mark Hudspeth didn’t recruit most of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette senior football players who played their last home game Saturday night.
It might have taken some time, but since then, Hudspeth said he has acquired a special admiration for the seniors on his 2012 team who he claims have helped make his job easier since becoming ULL’s head coach 23 months ago.
After ULL defeated South Alabama 52-30 and the Cajuns accepted a second straight R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl invitation, Hudspeth said his opinion of his 18 seniors couldn’t be higher.
“It’s a really tight-knit group, most of whom have been together (at ULL) for a long time. I couldn’t be prouder of this senior class, because of the way that they have kept this team together,” Hudspeth said.
“I cannot have asked them to do any more. We work them hard, and yet they go out and do above and beyond.
“They put their trust in me and our staff when we got here and started doing things a little different,” he said.
Hudspeth said he was pleased to see so many seniors making contributions to the Cajuns’ victory, which gives them a 7-4 overall mark and 5-2 conference record.
Some of those seniors weren’t on the field much this year or in their ULL careers.
Seldom-used senior tailback Yobes Walker scored the game’s last touchdown on a 1-yard run with 3:33 remaining.
Walker, recruited by former coach Rickey Bustle, started the game in the backfield.
Senior quarterback Blaine Gautier, injured in ULL’s third game, played for the first time since then and threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Maxwell. Gautier finished the game 2-of-4 passing for 32 yards.
Quarterback Brady Thomas, a senior who normally holds for placekicker Brett Baer, completed a 25-yard pass on a fake punt.
Javone Lawson, injured early last month against North Texas, returned for the first time since that game and caught three passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.
Lawson said watching the other seniors playing their last game was an emotional experience.
“It was great to see Blaine come in and throw a touchdown. For me, it’s a big honor to play with these guys. I remember when I got here, those guys took me in and treated me like a brother,” Lawson said.
Senior offensive tackle Jaron Odom said he will miss playing at Cajun Field.
“The last game at Cajun Field, well, that’s special. It’s a real special place to play. Every time we play there, we just try to take care of business,” Odom said.
Odom said the Ragin’ Cajuns figured they needed to beat South Alabama (2-10, 1-7) to attract an invitation after becoming bowl eligible the week before by beating Western Kentucky.
“We knew we had to do that to go to a bowl. Against (South Alabama) we wanted to get the win and talk about the bowls afterward,” Odom said.
Jay Cicero, president and chief executive officer of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, said New Orleans Bowl officials are hoping to replicate the experience of last December, when the Cajuns brought nearly 30,000 fans to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and defeated San Diego State on Baer’s last-play, 50-yard field goal.
“It couldn’t have been a more exciting game for us, and the team and fans were fantastic and felt so ecstatic to be there and came in record numbers.
“That was a special time for us. We were able to set attendance records (42,481), so we are very happy to invite them again,” Cicero said after the game.
Cicero said bowl officials will begin searching for a Conference USA opponent for the Cajuns in what is optimally a regional matchup.
“If not, we will select the best team available that brings the most number of fans,” he said.
Cicero said the Dec. 22 bowl game will kick off at 11 a.m. because of ESPN scheduling the same day.
Because of Christmas Eve, ESPN moved its Monday night game to Saturday night, which forced New Orleans Bowl officials to choose either an afternoon or late morning starting time.
Hudspeth presented game balls to ULL Athletic Director Scott Farmer and university President Joseph Savoie, as the team gathered around him in preparation for the bowl announcement made after the game at midfield.
Sophomore starting strong safety Trevence Patt was ejected from the game during the third quarter.
Patt received a personal foul for what officials felt was helmet-to-helmet contact as Patt broke up a pass intended for South Alabama receiver Wes Saxton.
Hudspeth said how much if any Patt will play in this Saturday’s regular season finale at Florida Atlantic will be determined by the Sun Belt Conference this week.
The key in determining whether Patt’s contact with Saxton was legal is whether Patt launched in the air before the hit that separated Saxton from the ball.