A Final Look At The 2014 New Orleans Bowl
By Dan McDonald (Special for ESPN1420)
Notes and quotes from Saturday’s UL win in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, which also happened to be the finest hour for the Ragin’ Cajun defense in recent history:
DEEEE-FENSE: Make no mistake ... the Cajuns’ fourth straight New Orleans Bowl win was provided by a stifling defense, one that teamed with a ball-control offense to turn pre-game wishes into reality.
Nevada entered the game with big offensive numbers, ranking in the nation’s top three in red-zone efficiency and points off turnovers. Quarterback Cody Fajardo had already etched his name into the NCAA record book as the second player in FBS history to rush for 3,000 and pass for 9,000 yards in a career, and right now he is the nation’s only player with 1,000 rush and 2,000 pass yards this season.
On Saturday, UL nearly doubled up the Wolf Pack offensively, taking a 411-213 advantage in total offense, a 194-89 rushing advantage, a 227-124 passing edge and a 26-13 first-down advantage. The Cajuns came up six seconds short of keeping possession for 37 minutes, compared to the 23:06 that Nevada had the football.
It’s much easier to play defense when your offense has the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game
“When they have the ball for five or six minutes,” Fajardo said, “it’s hard to get back out there and get your legs going.”
Fajardo ended up 14-of-29 passing. Cajun quarterback Terrance Broadway had that many completions before he ever missed on a pass, completing his first 14 throws to set an all-time NCAA bowl record.
Other than Fajardo, the rest of the Wolf Pack offense accounted for a total of 46 yards.
“Part of our game plan was to keep the ball out of Cody’s hands,” said Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth. “And to do that, we had to be very efficient offensively.”
That they were, but the Cajun defense also held Nevada without a touchdown for the first time since Notre Dame blanked the Wolf Pack in 2009. Nevada became the first team in New Orleans Bowl history to score in single digits, and the Cajuns become only the second bowl team in the last two years to hold an opponent without a touchdown (Middle Tennessee managed only two field goals in a 24-6 loss to Navy in last year’s Armed Forces Bowl).
The Cajuns had 17 plays that went for double-digit yardage. Nevada had six, three Fajardo runs and three Fajardo completions. Only once did the Wolf Pack have two of those twin-digit plays in the same drive, while UL had five in its first eight plays.
“We just had everybody do their job,” said senior linebacker Jake Molbert, who with former Notre Dame High teammate Hunter Stover has now completed six of his last seven football seasons with victories in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “We just played lights out.”
BOWL SUPERLATIVES: Bowl games date back to 1902, and have been played in every season since at least 1916. But in all that time, never has a team won the same bowl game in four straight seasons – until early Saturday afternoon.
The Cajuns’ 16- 3 win over Nevada’s Wolf Pack was UL’s fourth straight New Orleans Bowl triumph, adding to wins in 2011 over San Diego State, 2012 over East Carolina and last year over Tulane.
Eight other schools have won the same bowl three straight times – Toledo in the Capital One (1970-72), Arizona State in the Fiesta (1971-73), Nebraska in the Orange Bowl (1971-73), Miami-Ohio in the Capital One (1973-75), Alabama in the Sugar (1978-80), Oklahoma in the Orange (1979-81), USC in the Rose (2007-09) and most recently Boise State in the Las Vegas (2010-12).
But none of that eight added the fourth in those games. Oklahoma and USC came the closest, both losing in the Orange and Rose respectively before winning three straight.
Want more? Only one team in the country is on a longer bowl winning streak than the Cajuns’ four-game run. That’s reigning national champion Florida State, the Seminoles having won eight straight bowl games going into their Jan. 1 Rose Bowl national semifinal game against Oregon.
Trailing the Cajuns’ four-game bowl win streak are Michigan State, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas A&M, each of whom have won three straight bowl games and can improve to four straight during the current bowl season.
RECORD SUPERLATIVES: The Cajuns have compiled four straight 9-4 seasons, with the 36 wins over four years and the 36-16 overall record both easily the best of any four-year run in UL history.
Those numbers say something for consistency, as does this. Only eight teams in the country have won at least nine games in each of the past four seasons – Alabama, Cincinnati, Clemson, Florida State, Nebraska, Northern Illinois, Oregon and UL. LSU and Oklahoma can join that group with bowl wins this year.
CROWD COUNT: It wasn’t so much complacency with a fourth Crescent City trip as it was the cruelly early kickoff time (10 a.m. locally, a revolting 8 a.m. in Reno and body-time for the Wolf Pack), but the New Orleans Bowl crowd dropped off significantly from the previous three years.
Announced attendance was 34,014, the lowest since the Cajuns began making annual December trips to New Orleans. The game drew 42,841 in 2011, 48,828 in 2012 and a record 54,728 last year when hometown Tulane provided the opposition.
Even with that drop, the crowd was still the fourth-largest in New Orleans Bowl history. The biggest attendance ever for a non-UL bowl was 30,228 for Southern Mississippi-Middle Tennessee in 2009. The four Cajun games in the bowl have averaged 45,013 fans, about 50 percent more than the bowl’s best mark when UL wasn’t in the game.
Even more than the numbers, Cajun fans bring a vibrancy to a tourism-oriented city that is much less vibrant during the two weeks prior to Christmas. That’s something the New Orleans hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues can appreciate.
“They love coming here and we love having them,” New Orleans Bowl executive director Billy Ferrante said of UL’s fan base.
KEEPING HIS WORD: One of the bowl game’s many subplots involved former Cajun assistant coach Ron Hudson, who finished up his second year as Nevada’s offensive line coach.
Hudson was in several roles for the UL staff of coach Rickey Bustle from 2005-10, taking stints as assistant head coach and running game coordinator but always heading up the offensive line. During that time, the Cajuns were consistently boasted one of the top rushing attacks in the country, ranking in the top 15 nationally three different times. But during that time, UL never received a bowl invitation despite being a deserving selection more than once.
In some ways, Acadiana is still home for Hudson. His family stayed in Lafayette for his first two years after UL changed coaching staffs when Mark Hudspeth took over as head coach after the 2010 season. He only sold his Lafayette house earlier this year, and daughter Mackenzie is still in school as a UL sophomore.
Hudson was one of the department’s most popular coaches to those who knew him, and what he did on Friday – about 18 hours before kickoff – will explain why.
Hudson took the time on the afternoon before Saturday’s game to come to the Cajuns’ headquarters hotel during the HomeBank-sponsored fan celebration. Specifically, he came to see the now-traditional graduation ceremony where members of the Cajun squad – who missed the university’s regular graduation Friday in Lafayette – received their degrees.
Hudson had been involved with the recruitment of more than one player who took the cap-and-gown walk, including senior offensive lineman Daniel Quave.
“I sat in the Quaves’ living room and promised his parents that he would graduate,” Hudson said, “and I would see him graduate.”
In a coaching career of more than two decades, the New Orleans Bowl was Hudson’s first-ever bowl visit, and he could have spent the week enjoying the experience. Instead, he made good on his promises from five years earlier.
HELPS A LITTLE: The Cajuns’ bowl win takes a little of the sting away from what has been a horrendous year for the Sun Belt Conference against outside competition.
Going into the bowl season, the Sun Belt was 3-30 in non-conference games against FBS teams. The win by the Cajuns – who didn’t help that number at 0-3 this year – gives the league four wins and a 4-31 mark following South Alabama’s loss to Bowling Green late Saturday in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala.
The league has one more chance at a win, with Arkansas State meeting Toledo in the Jan. 4 GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile.
This year’s poor record follows a 2013 season in which the Sun Belt ranked atop the “Group of Five” leagues in non-conference winning percentage, and set a league record for non-league victories.