College Football

Defending champs UL-Lafayayette heading down the road to play East Carolina

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This story was researched, compiled, written, and edited by University of Connecticut fall 2012 sportswriting students Liz Caron and Justin McCabe, with information from the athletic websites of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and East Carolina University, the official homepage of the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, ESPN, the NCAA, and theadvertiser.com. 

For the second year in a row, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns  will cap off their season with a trip down Interstate 10 to play in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

An 8-4 record and a second place finish (6-2) in the Sun Belt Conference were enough to secure the defending champion Cajuns a return to the bowl game where the team captured its first NCAA Division I FBS title last December in a tight win over San Diego State.

This year’s contest, scheduled for Dec. 22 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, will be played against the East Carolina University Pirates, a strong Conference USA (8-4, 7-1) opponent with a high-scoring offense that UL Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth found a natural team to compare them with.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

“If you watch them on film, the little bit I’ve seen, they’re similar to us,” Hudspeth said during his weekly press conference  “They can run the football out of the spread, they run the read-option. They’ve got some talented wide receivers … They’re a very, very good offensive football team.”

Indeed, both ECU and UL Lafayette boasted offenses that averaged over 30 points and 400 yards per game this season, as well as both being among the top five in the nation in terms of red-zone efficiency (ECU ties at fifth with scores on 91% of drives into the opponent’s 20-yard line, while the Cajuns are an impressive 94%, second only to Louisville).

For UL Lafayette, the key to that offensive success lies in sophomore quarterback Terrance Broadway, who has thrown for 2526 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions for a 153.4 passer rating. Additionally, the young quarterback has also racked up 661 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Broadway took over for last year’s New Orleans Bowl Most Outstanding Player senior Blaine Gautier, a senior and owner of the school record for most touchdowns and yards thrown in a season, who suffered two broken bones in his throwing hand during a game in September and has seen minimal playing time since returning in early November.

“I think everybody in the end has to somewhat understand their role, understand the situation of the team, and understand where they’re at physically at the point when they return,” Hudspeth said in late November.

Broadway got the nod for that game and threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns (Gautier made only four pass attempts, although one was good for a touchdown).

A large part of Broadway’s success must be attributed to his experienced and deep receiving corps, led by senior Harry Peoples, who has been Broadway’s favorite target with 61 receptions for 774 yards and five touchdowns.

Logo Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns 575x5775

Along with Peoples, three other receivers have recorded over 500 yards and at least three touchdowns, a statistic that reveals the Cajuns’ ability to spread the ball around in the air attack.

On the ground, sophomore running back Alonzo Harris has rushed for 761 yards and eight touchdowns, acting as an effective counter-weight to Broadway’s arm.

However, if the game against ECU is the shoot-out that Hudspeth expects, the winner could be determined by whichever team’s defense steps up to the task of blunting the opponent’s offensive potency.

For UL Lafayette, that will be a tall order. They have held opponents to under 400 yeards in only three games this season. Four other opponents have gone for over 500 yards in their games against the Cajuns.

Against a team boasting both a formidable receiving and rushing threat (in the form of ECU’s Justin Hardy and Vintavious Cooper, respectively), this could spell trouble for UL Lafayette’s repeat trophy hopes.

The play of the defensive line will be crucial, especially that of senior Emeka Onyenekwu, who leads the team with 8.5 tackles for a loss, and sophomore Christian Ringo, who had a team-high six sacks on the year.

The big pair and the rest of the defense will need to be able to break into the Pirates’ backfield to disrupt Cooper and quarterback Shane Carden.

Also noteworthy on the Cajuns’ defense is junior linebacker Justin Anderson, who leads the team with 82 tackles, and senior safety Rodney Gillis, whose five interceptions were second in the Sun Belt Conference this year.

Finally, senior kicker Brett Baer, the Sun Belt’s leading overall scorer for the season, will return to the Superdome, the site of his 50-yard game winner over San Diego State University as time expired in last year’s New Orleans Bowl.

On the opposite side of the field from the Cajuns are the East Carolina Pirates, who will run into the field with 14 returning starters, giving them familiarity and leadership.

Logo East Carolina Pirates 575x575

This will be East Carolina’s sixth trip to a bowl game in the past seven years, their only win a 41-38 victory in 2007 over Boise State. They missed out on a bowl game last year after finishing the season 5-7.

Justin Hardy, sophomore receiver, had an outstanding season for the Pirates and will be East Carolina’s number one target in the game.  Hardy had 83 catches for 1046 yards this season and is a strong asset to the Pirate’s powerful offense who averages more than 30 points and over 400 yards per game according to The Advertiser.

At the helm of the offensive attack beside Hardy is sophomore quarterback Shane Carden, who threw for 2,838 yards and 21 touchdowns.  The Houston native also made six touchdowns in their last game over Marshall (65-59).

Their air attack could cause problems for Lafayette’s shaky defense that has given up 400 yards in six of its final seven games this season and are considered one of the worst passing defenses in the country, according to USA Today.

The Pirates’ defense is nothing special either, ranking 78th in the Football Bowl Subdivision out of 124 and fourth in C-USA in total defense, allowing an average of 381 yards per game.

If Peoples and Broadway take advantage of the Pirates’ weak secondary, the team from East Carolina may face a lot of long touchdowns.  The East Carolina defense has been known to struggle with quarterbacks all year round, so Head Coach Ruffin McNeill knows where his attention will lie during practices.

“Overall we need to play better defensively, he said in an ECU sports information release.  “At the day these two teams are playing for a bowl berth (Marshall) and a berth in the C-USA Championship.  We need to start playing better defense to get where we need to go,” McNeill said.

Since they’ve been winless in bowl games for five years, the Pirates need to carry the momentum they’ve gained from winning the past five of six games in regular season and finishing 7-1 in Conference USA to match up against the home team, Ragin’ Cajuns.

Bleacher Report deemed running back  running back Cooper the player to watch, being the Pirates’ leading rusher with 1,030 yards on 191 carries in the season.  Cooper is known for his ability to break off big runs, having a run of at least  10 yards in 11 of the 12 games.  Between Cooper and Hardy, the Cajun defense may struggle to find their rhythm against the Pirates’ well-rounded offense.

This early matchup in the 2012 college bowl season may not feature two of the most glamorous names, but this Sunbelt vs. C-USA should be an interesting watch when the teams kick off at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN.