Before UL-Lafayette’s football team turned its full thoughts to the Dec. 15 AutoNation Cure Bowl and in-state rival Tulane, the Ragin’ Cajuns squad and coaches took Sunday to review the reasons they’re playing in Orlando and not in New Orleans.

The Cajuns missed out on a chance to play in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl for the sixth time in eight seasons last Saturday, falling to Appalachian State 30-19 in the inaugural Sun Belt Conference championship game. The Mountaineers, courtesy of that home-field win, earned the league’s spot in New Orleans, while the Cajuns (7-6) claimed the runner-up assignment and a first-ever appearance in the Cure Bowl.

“Obviously we’d like to be in New Orleans, no question about that, because that means we won the championship,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said. “But the new format with the divisional structure and the championship game, and really rewarding the champion and the runner-up with the structure they’ve created, we’re excited about the opportunity.”

Two key turnovers and one special teams lapse among a couple of other mistakes kept the Cajuns from hoisting a trophy after what some players called their best defensive effort of the season.

“It obviously could have been better, but we played a heck of a first half,” said cornerback Deuce Wallace, part of a unit that held Appalachian State to 87 total yards and five first downs in the first two quarters. “You look at the first few games of the season, and you look at the last three games, that’s a completely different team, I think, on both sides of the ball.”

“I don’t know if it was the best we played all year, but we definitely played together,” said senior safety Corey Turner, who shared the team lead with nine tackles. “We played our hearts out. It showed how much we’ve improved and how much we can improve. I think it lit a fire in everybody on the defense.”

Napier and his staff did film breakdown on the trip home from Boone and met prior to Sunday’s football banquet before hitting the recruiting road. He agreed in the defensive improvement and hailed his team’s competitiveness in its first title-game experience.

“You hate to say it, but I think App State was more comfortable in that environment than we were," Napier said. "But I’ll say this, those guys in the red Saturday, they played hard. We went in there and competed, and I think our players and staff can be proud of that.

“The game came down to the simple things, things that it comes down to most weeks — turnovers, big plays, fundamentals, execution, decision making at quarterback, all those things we’ve done well and won games with, we did not do at times. But I think defensively we took another step forward and played probably our best game of the year on that side of the ball.”

Postgame Saturday

Napier gave a belated thanks to the Cure Bowl representatives who were in the Cajuns locker room after Saturday’s loss and officially extended UL-Lafayette the bowl invitation.

“We obviously wanted to win that game, and in the locker room there, that was a unique situation,” he said. “A lot of guys were very emotional with the way the game finished, they’d poured their heart and soul into preparing for that game and playing in that game. But what the Cure Bowl people did and said to us, I think it was a first-class gesture on their part and we appreciate it.”

Busy week

This weekend will be the Cajuns’ first time off since Sept. 8, with the squad playing 12 straight games after an early-season opening date. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a busy weekend for the UL-Lafayette staff and players.

For starters, it’s finals week, with final exams for the fall semester running through Friday. In part because of that, the only full-scale practice the Cajuns will conduct this week will be Wednesday on the “dead day” in the middle of finals.

“We’ve got to find the right balance,” Napier said, “making sure our students have an opportunity to finish the right way in the classroom, but also be ready to play.”

The team will have a couple of what Napier called “team activities” on Tuesday and Thursday, which will include lifting and seven-on-seven and individual drills for those who aren’t involved with finals the next day.

Napier said his coaching staff will be on the road much of the week hitting the recruiting trail, except for a quick return home for the Wednesday workout.

“It’s not like most bowl games, we’re not going to get the additional practices that we maybe would,” he said. “We’ll come back off the road for practice Wednesday to keep things sharp, and we’ll do some team activities independent of the coaches. We’ll basically turn the page on Sunday and begin a normal week.”

Along with that schedule, UL-Lafayette has a big group of prospects making official visits this weekend. It’s the only full recruiting weekend the Cajuns will have prior to the early signing period that begins Dec. 19, due to playing in the Sun Belt championship game last weekend and being on the road for the Dec. 15 bowl game.