LAFAYETTE — The hero of last year’s R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl says the approach is different this time for Louisiana-Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajun football team.
Of course, kicker Brett Baer wouldn’t mind a similar outcome.
“Everybody’s more grounded this time,” Baer said during the Cajuns’ local bowl media day Tuesday. “It really seems like everybody’s more calm. It’s not like we’re not excited about playing in a bowl game, but this year it’s kind of like we expected to be in this position.”
The Cajuns will play in the Dec. 22 New Orleans Bowl for the second straight year, and it was Baer’s foot that provided the game-winning play in ULL’s first postseason appearance in over four decades. His 50-yard field goal on the game’s final play gave the Cajuns a 32-30 victory over San Diego State — a play that has already become legend in Cajun football lore.
Now, the squad faces the task of repeating when they take on East Carolina in the 11 a.m. contest in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This time, they’ve been installed as a six-point favorite over the 8-4 Pirates from Conference USA.
ULL took an extended break from practice after its regular-season finale win at Florida Atlantic, which wrapped up an 8-4 season and gave the Cajuns four wins in their final five games. It also gave ULL a share of second place in the Sun Belt Conference race.
The squad held one practice last Wednesday during a one-day break in final exams for the fall term, but didn’t gather as a group until a Sunday night team meeting. Practice began in earnest for the bowl game on Monday and Tuesday.
“It was good to get back to work,” said Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth, who now holds a 17-8 record in his two seasons. “Our guys needed a break ... we’d gotten beaten up a little in those five games in a row. They’ve been going at it hard for right at 18 weeks, so it was nice to be able to give the guys some time off.
“We were also able to get our coaches out on the recruiting trail before we get back to getting ready for a very good East Carolina team.”
The squad has the benefit of the New Orleans Bowl moving back one week on the schedule. Last year’s game was played on Dec. 17 on the first weekend of the bowl season, but this year there are four bowl games scheduled before the New Orleans Bowl, with two of them set for Saturday.
Last year, of course, the Cajuns weren’t picky about their postseason date or location. Before 2011, the last time a ULL team took part in postseason play was the college-division Grantland Rice Bowl in 1970.
“When I first got here, we were just praying to go anywhere,” said Baer, who will become the NCAA’s all-time career field goal accuracy leader among those with 50 attempts if he goes 3-for-3 in the bowl game. “We would have gone anywhere to play in a bowl game. This year, it was like we really didn’t want to go to some places ... we really wanted to go back to New Orleans.”
The Cajuns will work out through Friday and take Saturday off before returning for a Sunday night practice. The squad will work out Monday in Lafayette and hold team meetings next Tuesday morning before departing for New Orleans at 1 p.m. that day. Practices in New Orleans are scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 19, at Tad Gormley Stadium and Thursday, Dec. 20, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before a team photo and walk-through on Friday morning, Dec. 21.
“We’ll get in about 11 practices,” Hudspeth said, an increase over the more compact schedule from last year. “That’s almost like having an extra spring practice, but we’re also going to have a lot of days that we send the regulars in early and keep the freshmen and the young kids out there to give them some more work.”
The Cajuns did something similar last year in pre-bowl practices, and one beneficiary of that extra work was sophomore quarterback Terrance Broadway. The former Capitol High-Baton Rouge standout redshirted last year after transferring from Houston and watched last year’s game from the sideline as Cajuns starter Blaine Gautier set a New Orleans Bowl record with 470 yards passing and three touchdowns.
However, Gautier suffered a broken hand during the Cajuns’ 48-20 win over FIU, and Broadway — who saw backup action in each of the first four games — stepped in and started the final eight. He finished the season as ULL’s all-time leader in completion percentage (.654) while throwing for 2,526 yards (fourth all-time) and accounting for 3,187 total yards (third all time).
“The key is that I’ve gotten comfortable leading the team,” said Broadway, who despite not starting two Sun Belt games ended up leading the league in total offense. “We struggled a little. I wasn’t comfortable against Arkansas State (a 50-27 loss that is ULL’s only home loss in the last two seasons), and I didn’t play the way I was capable, but the second half of that game was key. We really found ourselves a lot. We found out a lot about ourselves ... things like we don’t give up and we still had a lot of fight, and that carried over into our next games.”
After that loss ULL went 4-1, with the only loss coming in a final-play 27-20 setback at fourth-ranked Florida.
“Some of those bad times brought us close together,” Baer said. “We’re playing the best football we’ve played at the right time, in December.”