NEW ORLEANS — The winner of Saturdays game inside the Mecerdes-Benz Superdome will be handed a sizable trophy, but the intangibles are more important to both teams battling for it.
East Carolina kicks off for the final time in 2012 when the 8-4 Pirates square off against fellow 8-4 Louisiana-Lafayette in the 12th playing of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, a game that figures to pack some offensive punch.
There is much more than a trophy to play for in todays noon kickoff the Pirates second game in a little more than a month in the home of the Sugar Bowl but a bowl victory alone would be a fitting gift for this edition of the Pirates.
ECU is riding a three-game win streak into Saturdays game but is trying to end a three-game slide in postseason play. The Pirates last bowl win a 2007 upset over Boise State at the Hawaii Bowl predates the entire ECU roster, which includes 17 seniors playing their final collegiate games in the Crescent City today.
I think playing your best game going into the offseason is always important, third-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said of his teams sixth bowl appearance in seven years. There are 70 teams chosen to play in bowls, 35 bowl games. To be one of those 70 is an honor, but we want to go in there and play our best game.
Sophomore ECU quarterback Shane Carden leads an offense that found true balance this season.
He starts his first postseason game having thrown for 2,838 yards with 21 touchdowns and rushed for a team-best eight TDs. Sophomore receiver Justin Hardy (team-high 83 receptions, 1,046 yards, 10 TDs) and junior college transfer tailback Tay Cooper (team-high 1,030 rush yards, eight total TDs) helped ECU to go on a 5-1 run to finish out the regular season.
Senior Andrew Bodenheimer (31 receptions, 306 yards, three TDs) came on strong at the end of the season, making critical TD catches in the Pirates victories over Tulane and Marshall. Sophomore Danny Webster (30-290-4) and junior Justin Jones (24-341-3) each cashed in three-touchdown games along the way, and despite making just 14 grabs, true freshman Jabril Solomon remained a constant deep threat with 354 receiving yards and a 60-yard touchdown to his credit.
Cooper blossomed behind an offensive line that took its lumps early in the season but rallied to create space for the former JUCO quarterback from Clinch County (Ga.).
Coopers relentless physical style earned him C-USA Newcomer of the Year honors.
I think he came in and was very patient, more patient than a lot of other people, and he was able to pick up protection and block for Shane, but he had to be a guy that you want to keep him in the game, McNeill said of Cooper, whose stellar play squashed the idea of a running back committee. He has allowed Shane to develop.
Today, Carden and company will face a defense that, like ECUs, has struggled to stop the pass. Louisiana-Lafayette ranked eighth out of 10 Sun Belt teams in total defense (429.1 yards allowed per game), including a league-worst 284.8 on the pass.
Leading the Ragin Cajuns defensive effort is outside linebacker Justin Anderson, a junior who has erupted for 101 tackles in 12 games, including a career-high 12 (nine solo) in his teams near-upset of Florida earlier this season.
The spark plug of the entire operation, and perhaps the primary concern for Carden, is senior bandit and first-team Sun Belt selection Emeka Onyenekwu, who has blasted through opposing offensive lines for 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Joining him is sophomore defensive tackle Christian Ringo (10 TFL, seven sacks).
They mix it up on you up front, ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of the Cajuns. Theyve got a couple of guys, individually, that can generate some pass rush and thats always a concern. Theyve got some really big interior guys and have nice size across the board up front. And in the secondary, three out of four guys are returning starters who have played a lot of ball for them.
Senior free safety Rodney Gillis (69 tackles, five interceptions) and Jemarlous Moten (59 tackles, three INTs) bolster the backfield.
Second-year coach Mark Hudspeth and the Ragin Cajuns are the defending New Orleans Bowl champs after they finished off San Diego State 32-30 in the Superdome last year.
Since then, former Houston backup QB Terrance Broadway has been a big hit, throwing for 2,526 yards, rushing for 661 more and ringing up 24 total TDs. Broadway replaced opening-day starter (and 2011 New Orleans Bowl MVP) Blaine Gautier when the senior injured his hand four games into the season, and both passers played in the teams final two regular season games.
On the flanks, the Ragin Cajuns boast four receivers with at least 20 catches and 500 receiving yards Harry Peoples (61-774-5), Javone Lawson (36-540-4), Darryl Surgent (33-559-3) and Jamal Robinson (20-514-3). Although Broadway could be argued as the greatest threat out of the Louisiana-Lafayette backfield today, hes gotten help from leading rusher Alonzo Harris (761 yards, eight TDs).
The final scores dont often suggest it in leagues like C-USA, but the ECU defense was the backbone of the Pirates three straight wins over Houston, Tulane and Marshall to cement their 7-1 C-USA finish. In all three wins, the Pirates either created game-changing turnovers or halted opposing offenses on key third and fourth downs. From play to play, one big difference has been a flurry of blitzes.
Our D-line really stepped up in the run game and the pass rush, said sophomore inside linebacker Jeremy Grove, who is second on the team with 71 tackles behind junior free safety Damon Magazus 72. Then we have corners and outside backers blitzing off the outside, and that was a key component this year.
Next to Grove, ILBs Kyle Tudor (59 tackles, sack) and Daniel Drake 38 tackles, three TFL, sack) have excelled with junior OLB Derrell Johnson (58 tackles, team-high 11 TFL and seven sacks) and JUCO newcomer Gabe Woullard (26 tackles, 5.5 TFL, three sacks) on the outside.
The push from the ECU front three has also improved thanks to regular starting ends Lee Pegues and Michael Brooks, who along with nose tackle Terry Williams have combined for 12.5 TFL and three sacks.
With Magazu and JUCO Chip Thompson (55 tackles, three INT, fumble recovery TD) anchoring the secondary, corners Leonard Paulk (43 tackles), Jacobi Jenkins (38 tackles, 10 pass breakups) and Adonis Armstrong (39 tackles, 13 PBs) have been able to limit some of the damage they sustained early in the campaign.
They have a chip on their shoulder too, Tudor said, comparing the Cajuns to the Pirates. Thats working for them, and they have a good quarterback whos athletic and can run and pass, so thats going to be a big key. But its really just doing what we know how to do. Were focusing a lot on stripping the ball, trying to get the most turnovers in the bowl series.
Today marks the first time since 1990 that the Pirates and Cajuns have played. Louisiana-Lafayette leads the all-time series, 6-4, and until an ECU win in that last meeting had won four straight against the Pirates.
Prior to last seasons bowl win, it had been 41 years since the Ragin Cajuns earned a bowl bid, and today marks just their fourth-ever bowl game and a chance to improve to 3-1 in those appearances.
ECU, meanwhile, can even its all-time bowl record at 9-9 with a win today.
We have a one-game season for our seniors, McNeill said. Weve had three weeks to prepare for it. You can see those seniors in practice, their intensity. I have to watch them and blow the whistle a little quicker because theyre really going at it.