LAFAYETTE — The excitement of a second straight nearby bowl trip — and the affirmation that another record crowd will be on hand for support — has given way to reality this week for Louisiana-Lafayette’s football team.
That reality is East Carolina’s Pirates, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ opponent for the Dec. 22 New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“They’re just talented,” said Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth of the 8-4 Pirates, who missed out on a berth in Conference USA’s championship game on a tie-breaker. “It doesn’t take long to recognize that when you watch them on film. It’s going to be a heck of a contest.”
The Cajuns won a 32-30 shootout with San Diego State in last year’s New Orleans Bowl, and prospects are for another high-scoring affair if the last half of the regular season is any indication.
ULL won four of its last five and averaged 39.5 points in those four wins — two of which they went in as underdogs. ECU one-upped that, winning five of its last six, and the Pirates averaged 44.8 points in the five wins that left them 7-1 in C-USA play. ECU topped 40 points four times in its final six games.
But Cajuns offensive tackle Leonardo Bates said that facing a high-octane offense is actually an advantage, since the ULL defense sees a similar group every time they hit the practice field.
“We’re just hoping our offense will do better than theirs,” said Bates, part of an offensive line fivesome that started all 12 games as a group during the regular season. “We know their offense, and the best thing we can do is give our defense a good look every day in practice, and hope that we do their offense even better than they (ECU) will do it.”
Pirates sophomore quarterback Shane Carden, who took no snaps last season and didn’t take over as ECU’s starter until the third game of the season, threw for 2,838 yards and 21 scores on 66.8 percent completions with nine interceptions.
“He’s not really a runner, but he can scramble and prolong plays,” Hudspeth said. “He’s a great thrower when he’s mobile and can scramble and find guys when he’s out of the pocket. He makes really good decisions ... he’s a little like Ryan Aplin (Arkansas State’s quarterback and Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year) in that.”
That’s not good news for the Cajuns defense, since Aplin torched ULL in guiding the Red Wolves to 526 offensive yards in ASU’s 50-27 Tuesday primetime victory over the Cajuns in late October. And, despite the late-season surge, that defense gave up big yardage numbers. Six of ULL’s last seven foes went for over 400 yards (the lowest was actually fourth-ranked and Sugar Bowl-bound Florida at 311 yards), and even conference bottom-dweller Florida Atlantic generated 528 yards in the Cajuns’ 35-21 regular-season finale victory.
Conversely, East Carolina has been solid defensively, especially against the run. With the notable exception of allowing 512 rush yards and six touchdowns to Navy’s triple-option offense in a 56-28 defeat — ECU’s only loss since the first weekend of October — the Pirates have held opponents to an average of less than 90 yards rushing in the second half of the season.
“They’ve been good against the run all year, they’ve been very stingy,” Hudspeth said. “They’ll make you do your homework because they’ll give you a lot of different looks. They do a great job of disguising what they do.”
“They just look strong,” Bates said at Thursday’s final regular press luncheon before the squad departs for New Orleans at 1 p.m. Tuesday. “They’ve got physically strong guys up front that use their hands well. But if we move our feet and use our size and strength the way we can, it’s going to be a pretty good battle up there.”
The Cajuns have been holding morning practices all week with school already concluded for the fall semester, and Hudspeth said that will help get acclimated to the 11 a.m. kickoff in nine days. The team will practice on Friday before taking Saturday off, and will begin regular game-week workouts Sunday evening.
Ticket manager Matt Casbon said Thursday that New Orleans Bowl ticket sales through the ULL ticket office had topped 20,000, the highest bowl sale for a Sun Belt school and easily surpassing last year’s 18,862 bowl tickets purchased through ULL.
Last year’s game drew a bowl-record 42,841 fans, a mark that figures to be eclipsed this year. New Orleans Bowl officials have already opened the full terrace level in the Superdome for the first time in the bowl’s history.
ULL’s ticket office at the Cajundome is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. today, Saturday and Monday for bowl ticket purchases, with 6 p.m. Monday the deadline to purchase the $40 tickets through ULL.