NEW ORLEANS — How many times has Brett Baer replayed the final two seconds of last year’s New Orleans Bowl in his mind?
The answer: More than he really wanted to. But he’s not complaining.
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said the University of Louisiana at Lafayette senior kicker, whose 50-yard last-play field goal provided the Cajuns with their 32-30 win over San Diego State in last year’s game. “It’s good to be able to relive that, and I know I can use that as a confidence booster. Just being in that situation, if it happens again, I’ll know that I’ve done that.”
Baer knows he’s done that because he’s had it thrown at him from every possible angle over the past 12 months. When he heads home to Brandon, Miss., on breaks from school, parents Ron and Dianne have it on their TV screen. His kick is the lead highlight on the Cajuns’ 2012 highlight film, and Acadiana-area fans have seen it incessantly in television promos since ULL was invited to its second straight New Orleans Bowl four weeks ago.
That kick may be the biggest in the program’s history, but it has overshadowed the many other pluses that Baer has brought to Cajun special teams — pluses that were displayed in last year’s bowl victory.
Against San Diego State, Baer converted an onside kick, and also killed two of his four punts at the Aztecs 1-yard-line.
“If we hadn’t had the special teams plays we had last year, we probably wouldn’t have won,” said Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth of a game in which Darryl Surgent returned a punt 87 yards for a score and ULL pulled off a fake punt.
Special teams may have another big impact Saturday when the 8-4 Cajuns take on East Carolina (8-4). ULL has won four of its past five and ECU has won five of six entering the 11 a.m. game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“We hope our special teams can give us an advantage,” Hudspeth said. “We’re ranked No. 1 in the (Sun Belt) conference in punts and kickoff coverage and field goals. You take away any of that, and I’m not sure we’re as successful as we’ve been this season.”
Baer has handled ULL’s placement duties for the past 21/2 seasons, and has hit 17-of-20 field goals this season including a 7-of-9 showing from 40 or more yards.
He carried over a field-goal streak that eventually reached a school-record 18 this year, and if he’s successful on three or more without a miss in Saturday’s bowl game he’ll become the most accurate kicker in FBS history among those who have attempted 50 or more field goals. He’s currently 42 of 47 (.894) in his career, with Nebraska’s Alex Henery topping that list with a 68-of-76 mark (.895).
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a guy that’s more accurate,” Hudspeth said.
But the field goals are only a part of Baer’s repertoire. He took over punting chores for the Cajuns as a junior and averaged 40.3 yards per kick. This year, he upped that mark to 42.0 and opponents only returned 18 of his 54 kicks. He also had 22 punts downed inside the 20, with only two touchbacks.
He earned All-Sun Belt first-team honors as both punter and kicker — a feat not duplicated at any of the other 10 FBS conferences this year.
“It’s been a good year,” Baer said. “I kind of went into last year not knowing what to expect punting, but doing both makes you stay in the game all the time. Every drive you know you may wind up doing something, so it keeps you in the game and you don’t get relaxed.”
The knock against Baer early in his career was his kickoff distance, but an increase in strength — and the new NCAA rule that brings kickoff touchbacks out to the 25-yard-line instead of the 20 — has led to more ULL success covering kickoffs. The average opponents’ starting field position this year after Baer’s kickoffs — a duty he shares with Hunter Stover — is the 22-yard-line.
And, Baer is 8 of 11 in his career on successful onside kicks, and he’s recovered five of those himself.
“Brett is just a weapon in all our special teams,” Hudspeth said. “Some guys are very good with placements and not so good on punting and vice versa. He’s absolutely solid on both of those, and he can do the other things we ask because he works so hard at it.”
Even with all that, he’s still best remembered for lining up for a 55-yard field goal in the New Orleans Bowl’s final play last year. That was before a rare “illegal stemming” penalty — the defense coaxing a false start from the offense with an abrupt and abnormal action — resulted in a key 5-yard walkoff against San Diego State.
“When it as at 55 originally, I was just going to make sure I get the leg going, because the one thing you don’t want to do is come up short. That’s such a disappointment,” Baer said. “At 55, it was just about having the distance. Once it got moved to 50, it was slow down and think about technique. There’s a fine line where you don’t have to crush it.”
The snap from then-freshman John Broussard and the hold by then-junior and backup quarterback Brady Thomas were spot on. Baer’s kick — at the time a career-long attempt — had plenty of distance and curled inside the left upright at the Superdome’s Poydras Street end. By the time officials and many of the 42,841 fans on hand signaled the kick good, Baer was off on a dead sprint around the Superdome turf, teammates in hot pursuit.
“I was trying to lean with it,” he said. “Everything happened so fast. You kind of know when you hit it that it’s a good hit and I knew it had a chance. I’m shorter than some of those guys (5-foot-11) so it was hard seeing over the line, but when Brady put his body on me I knew it was good. After that, I just took off running.
“Everybody always asks me why I ran, and I really don’t know. You don’t even think in that situation. I knew that guys were going to try to dog-pile me, but if they did that it wouldn’t have mattered. It was just awesome to be in that situation.”