Over the past 41 years, when UL's football team finished its regular season, it was over ... done ... turn in the equipment and get ready for fall final exams and the upcoming holidays.
This year is sooooo much different.
For Cajun followers, even Saturday’s 45-37 road loss at Pac-12 Conference member Arizona wasn’t a huge disappointment. Even that could have turned out differently with a break here and there, or possibly with an officiating crew that couldn’t get past the Pac-12 logo on the Wildcats’ jerseys.
In the past, the penalty disparity – double-figure penalties on the Ragin’ Cajuns, three on the Wildcats – would have been frustrating throughout the off-season. Now, it’s just the hazards of playing on the road, outside of the conference, and it’s time to look past those inequities and look ahead to the trip to the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
The Cajuns will be spending the next three weeks preparing for that Dec. 17 game, with final exams in between, and it’s the first time since moving to the Division I ranks that UL has had the extra practice time at the end of a season. It’s the little secret in the bowl system that many programs don’t talk about but all of them want – basically, an extra spring practice session that isn’t just aimed
at the bowl game, but also on early improvements for the following season.
One thing UL will hope to improve is in pass defense, after the success that UA quarterback Nick Foles had last Saturday. The future draft pick threw for 352 yards and three scores, tying career and single-season marks for TD passes after becoming the Wildcats’ career leader in just about every passing category prior to his career finale (Arizona is not bowl-eligible at 4-8). Two of Foles’ TD passes came in quick succession at the end of the first half and gave UA a 21-13 lead at intermission.
“Those were very deflating,” UL quarterback Blaine Gautier said immediately after Saturday's game. “We could have done some things better in that first half that definitely wouldn’t have put us in that hole.”
Gautier threw for 315 yards and a score – one that tied Jake Delhomme’s single-season record of 20 TD throws -- and ran for another one, leading an offense that put up 409 yards on the Wildcats and one that pulled within eight points of UA three different times in the final quarter. Had it not been for a shaky offsides call in the final few minutes that bailed the Wildcats out of a fourth-down situation, it might have been four different times.
More than one UL athletic staffer indicated that wasn’t the only head-scratching call. Folks on the UL sideline are still trying to get an explanation for a defensive holding call on a field goal attempt. Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth probably felt the same frustrations, but was more diplomatic after the game.
“Just too many mistakes,” the first-year Cajun boss said. “Penalties absolutely killed us … 10 to their three. I’m totally shocked they only had three and totally shocked we had 10.”
Hopefully, the Pac-12 won’t provide the officiating crew for the New Orleans Bowl, which uses a neutral crew from outside the two conferences represented in the game.
It wasn’t a cakewalk for Foles, who went over 4,000 passing yards for the season in the game. Jemarious Moten bedeviled him once, picking off a pass and returning it 41 yards for a score early in the fourth period to make it an eight-point game. The pick-six runback was UL’s seventh of the season, tying an NCAA record set 40 years ago by Tennessee, and the Cajun defense will go for eight in the upcoming bowl game.
The Cajun coaching staff won’t mind coming up short there … as long as the defensive unit plays with more consistency. The offense and Motel’s runback – not to mention his career-high nine tackles -- combined for UL’s second-highest point output of the season, and that’s a good sign especially since they’ll have three weeks to get both units at full throttle.
They’ll also have time to come up with even more wrinkles. Against Arizona, UL converted yet another onside kick – making Brett Baer an incredible 8-of-11 in his career – while also blocking a field goal.
Serious game-planning will begin soon, as soon as a Cajun opponent is determined. New Orleans Bowl officials will likely be going the at-large route, since Conference USA is at least one team and likely two away from fulfilling its bowl quota, and they’re hoping that happens sometime this week.