MONROE - Although Louisiana-Monroe stunned Alabama and coach Nick Saban on the road in 2007, that’s ancient history to second-year ULM coach Todd Berry and the current group of Warhawks.
Heading into Saturday’s game at No. 6 Florida State, they are more motivated by a trio of trouncings they absorbed from Top-10 opponents Auburn, Arkansas and LSU last season than a victory in which none of them played a role.
Outscored 134-10 in the three recent mismatches, the Warhawks (5-7 in 2010) want to prove they are much better with the return of 10 starters on offense and seven on defense. Louisiana-Monroe’s ultimate goal is an outright Sun Belt Conference championship and the first bowl bid in program history.
“We feel like we are going to have multiple upsets this year,” linebacker Cameron Blakes said. “We were pretty young last year, but there are no excuses this time. We just want to give the town something new to talk about other than that Alabama win.”
Merely staying competitive with FSU might do the trick, but the Warhawks won’t experience another atmosphere this intimidating this season.
“I’d like to say I’ll play the same way as any other game,” said defensive end Ken Dorsey, whose five sacks in 2010 were one below Blakes’ team-leading total. “But I know, going in front of the big lights, I’ll want to make a big mark in front of thousands and thousands of people.”
With then-redshirt freshman quarterback Kolton Browning learning on the job a year ago, Louisiana-Monroe crumbled in intimidating stadiums. This season, Berry is preparing his players for FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium by having the Seminole War Chant piped in from the scoreboard every day in practice.
Browning matured as the season progressed, though, throwing for 2,552 yards and 18 touchdowns while rushing for 385 yards and a team-leading four scores. He also tied a school record with eight consecutive 200-yard passing games.
“I expect to go out there and feel a lot more comfortable after having another offseason and a preseason camp with my teammates,” Browning said. “I’ll go in there ready to play. We’re coming back with a lot of confidence and high expectations.”
The Warhawks’ top four receivers are back, too, including senior Luther Ambrose, who caught 65 passes, which only adds to Browning’s confidence. ULM will play without starting cornerback Otis Peterson, who will miss the next five weeks after having surgery on his right arm.
FSU is coming off its first 10-win season since 2003 after a steady decline at the end of legendary coach Bobby Bowden’s tenure. Second-year coach Jimbo Fisher welcomes back a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball, but quarterback EJ Manuel is unproven. He started a total of six games in relief of former starter Christian Ponder the past two years, throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (six).
“Any time somebody hasn’t had a lot of experience, it can help you,” Blakes said. “He (Manuel) is a very good player, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to make a lot of mistakes. We just have to take advantage of his mistakes.”
All talk aside, the Warhawks know they will be massive underdogs Saturday. That feeling inevitably leads back to the remarkable 21-14 upset of Alabama, when they caught the Crimson Tide in the midst of a four-game slide at the end of the regular season.
Fifteen redshirt seniors remain from that team, but none of them played against Alabama.
“We can’t just look back and say, ?Hey, we did it four years ago, we can do it now,’” Browning said. “We feel like we’re on the rise. We have great confidence to go out there and beat anybody we’re put up against.”