Cajuns, Pirates eagerly await New Orleans Bowl
Even as quarterback Terrance Broadway celebrated Louisiana-Lafayette's first bowl victory at college football's highest level one year ago, there was a part of him left unfulfilled.
"All I was doing was watching, and that hurt," said Broadway, who as a 2011 transfer from Houston could practice but not play last season. "I had practiced all year, ran the scout team, but (did) not have the whole bowl experience. ... Now I have another opportunity, and we're going to try to make the most of it."
That opportunity comes Saturday afternoon when the Ragin' Cajuns (8-4) of the Sun Belt Conference make their second straight appearance in the New Orleans Bowl, this time against East Carolina (8-4) of Conference USA.
Broadway, a sophomore, was supposed to serve as ULL's No. 2 QB this season behind senior Blaine Gautier. But when Gautier broke his throwing hand in late September, Broadway stepped in and put up some of the best all-around numbers ever seen from a Cajuns quarterback.
Broadway had 2,526 yards and 16 TDs passing to go with 661 yards and eight TDs rushing.
So while East Carolina's Ruffin McNeill sees himself as a defensive-minded coach, he concedes the New Orleans Bowl could turn into a high-scoring shootout, with each team approaching its 2012 scoring average of more than 30 points.
"With both explosive offenses, there's a chance for that to happen," McNeill said. "In a game such as this, there'll be some momentum shifts. So I think it's important for us to understand that."
The Pirates have demonstrated they can respond when things go wrong both within a game and within a season. In early October, a 40-20 drubbing at Central Florida dropped ECU to 3-3. Since then, the Pirates have won five of six, capped by a 65-59 victory over Marshall in their regular-season finale.
"This group has really faced adversity well, handled it well, as well as any success," said McNeill, a former ECU player. "I like that about this team."
He also likes the production he has gotten from sophomore quarterback Shane Carden, who like Broadway also can be a threat to run, and new running back Vintavious Cooper, who was named Conference USA Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Southwest Mississippi Community College.
Carden has passed for 2,838 yards and 21 TDs to go with eight touchdowns rushing. His top target has been Justin Hardy (1,046 yards receiving, 10 TDs). Cooper, who played quarterback in junior college, rushed for 1,030 yards and has averaged 114.4 yards rushing in his past five games, including a career-high 172 yards against Alabama-Birmingham.
"They can really score in bunches," Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. "That scares you because they've been in some shootouts. Their quarterback can make plays with his legs; he can throw the ball down the field, and most important he can extend plays and get out of the pocket when you think you have him bottled up."
Cooper said learning to read defenses as a quarterback helped him identify weaknesses in opponents' alignments before snaps on which he knows he'll get the ball. Still, he figured his adjustment to a new position at a higher level of football would take longer than it did.
"I've had a crazy year," Cooper said. "I wouldn't expect what happened to me this year to happen."
His success helped land ECU back in the Superdome, where the Pirates have already won once this season, defeating Tulane 28-23. Tulane was the one common opponent both New Orleans Bowl teams had this season. The Ragin' Cajuns beat Tulane 41-13 in Lafayette, which is a little more than a two-hour drive west of New Orleans on Interstate 10.
Fans from Lafayette helped set a New Orleans Bowl attendance record of nearly 43,000 last year. All signs point to them coming back in droves this season, making it a virtual road game for ECU.
"We heard about them winning last year and owning the Superdome," Cooper said. "I love playing on the road. Nothing like being in front of 30,000 people who don't want you to do anything right. You look forward to being booed and you look forward to scoring touchdowns to shut that crowd up."