From the Bird’s Nest: My Saturday in the Superdome
It was finally Gameday.
All of the work leading up to the game. All of the preparation, all of the dealings with sponsorships, all of the pre-gameday work in New Orleans was over.
Now it was time for the most important broadcast in the history of Ragin' Cajuns Sports.
After Steve and Scott handled the Saturday show at Walk-Ons on Poydras Street, we all went to my room at the Hyatt just to discuss a few things. We had a two hour pregame show scheduled and we knew at some point there would be a curve ball or two, there always is. We visited for about 45 minutes and they left to go back to the Marriott and get more equipment and we agreed to head to the 'Dome at about 430.
I left my room about 4:15 and as I went through the Hyatt third floor area where Cajun fans were gathered, many waved and said something and since I had a bunch of equipment they knew I was headed to the 'Dome. But by the time I walked over there and figured out where I had to enter and finally got up to the press box it was about 4:50. Steve finished setting up equipment while I took a look at the setup.
When they renovated the Superdome last, they moved the suites lower where the media used to sit. They left the TV booth for the NFL (and in this case, ESPN), but moved everything else, press-wise up to the 700 level. Our broadcast booth was located at around the 30 yard line.
It was high.
And I knew it would be. There were two television monitors that would help the situation. But looking down from the booth, it was going to be higher than any venue I had ever broadcasted a game from.
Even higher than Louisiana-Monroe. And, that's pretty high.
The field had the logos covered up. I watched as the covers were removed. The first one was in the end zone and I watched as the Ragin' Cajuns logo was unveiled.
That's when I had my moment. Not as emotional as I expected. But a moment, nonetheless.
We still had a couple of interviews to line up. Scott Prather went downstairs and got New Orleans Bowl exective director Billy Ferrante. I made contact with Athletics Director Scott Farmer and Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters, both of whom said they would go on the air live.
Lenny Vangilder came into the booth. I've known Lenny for many years. He was an assistant under Dan McDonald in the media relations department at USL. "You got a minute?" "Sure," I said. "Good. There's someone I want you to meet."
And, before I walked outside, I knew who it was.
It was time for Jay Walker to meet Jay Walker.
Jay was going to be the color commentator for the ESPN Radio broadcast. Jay is a graduate of Howard University, where he was a quarterback. He is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. We joked about having the same name and posed for pictures. He also asked about Orlando Thomas, the great Cajuns safety who was Jay's teammate when Jay was with the Vikings. Orlando, as you probably know, is battling Lou Gehrig's disease. We chatted for a few more minutes and then we both went back to our booths to finish getting ready for our respective broadcasts.
One of the big disappointments in our location was we couldn't see the seating levels below us except for the almost empty terrace section. So we never got to see the sea of red in the stands except for those in the end zones. That took a little away from our experience.
When I got back to the booth, I looked at my watch. 5:55.
It was time.
I got through the open and during the commercial break, Scott Farmer walked into the booth. We spoke of the incredible week for the fans and players. And, we talked of the moving commencement exercise that had been held Friday afternoon. When we finished and went into a break, it was time for Jay Johnson, the offensive coordinator.
Steve had pre-recorded most of the interviews that were done on his mp3 player. And, 90 seconds into the Johnson interview, we got our first of many curve balls.
The interview cut off after a minute and a half.
Steve, ever the professional, simply took the rest of the time to relay what else they had talked about. He would have to do that for every interview he had done. It was frustrating for all of us, but Steve got it done.
The interviews I had recorded with my mp3 player went off okay.
I enjoyed my conversation with the Commissioner. Wright and I have been friends for many years. He and I have agreed to disagree with the way the Conference office handled the Louisiana name issue. We have just chosen not to discuss it any more. He is retiring next June and the league will miss him greatly. Fans do not understand how widely respected Wright is on a national basis. He oversaw the formation of the football league, guided the league through some difficult times and leaves the next Commissioner with a very stable league. We talked a little about that and he also gave his thoughts on what would happen next with realignment. It will probably be a topic of conversation on Bird's Eye View soon.
There was one other glitch in the pregame. We had an unbelievable highlight package put together by the incomparable Bruce Mikels from 97.3 the Dawg. Bruce is an absolute wizard in the production room and his package was outstanding. Before I left for Oxford I asked him to do it and told him what I wanted. Then I got out of his way. He's absolutely the best. The plan was for the package to run as the last thing in the pregame. There was supposed to be a stop command after the commercial break so we could introduce it.
It so happened that during that commercial break, we got the news about Devon Lewis-Buchanan's injury. Scott was down on the field and had the information. The problem was, there was no stop command and the package started to play without the introduction. Or the info on Lewis-Buchanan. The package was fifteen minutes long and we didn't want to wait. So we stopped the package, gave the information and then restarted it. Not a perfect scenario, but we got through it.
Then it was time for the lineups and the coin toss.
And then it was time to play.
It was time to forget about the week long celebration. It was time to forget about all of the friends and fans I had seen. It was time to focus on the job.
It didn't take long for me to figure out I could actually call the play by looking at the field regardless of the height. I had the monitor to help me with specific players, tacklers and it was great to have replay. And, it didn't take long to get into regular game rhythm.
San Diego State got a field goal on their first possession, but I was impressed with the way the Cajuns were playing the run. Ronnie Hillman was third in the nation in rushing and was highly touted coming into the game. But the Cajuns swarmed all over him on the first possession and the field goal didn't bother me at all. In fact, SDSU had first down at the four and had to settle for three when Hillman was thrown for a big loss on first down.
The Cajuns hit a big pass on their possession and looked like they were going to score when Blaine Gautier hit Javone Lawson on a crossing pattern to the SDSU three yard line. But Harry Peoples was called for a pick and the Cajuns had to punt.
The Cajuns forced a punt on the Aztecs next possession and once again, the boys from San Diego couldn't run the football. In the ensuing commercial break I told Steve if they couldn't have success running the football, the Cajuns would win the game. I think I said it later in the broadcast as well.
The Cajuns drove eighty yards on their next possession. A 39 yard pass to Darryl Surgent got the Cajuns into Aztecs territory and a pass to Lawson for the touchdown gave the Cajuns the lead. The blocked PAT was a bit disconcerting, but the Cajuns were on the board.
The Cajuns held San Diego State without a first down on the next possession. Again, Hillman was ineffective, failing to get a first down on third and three. Nick Stahovich punted to Darryl Surgent, who got me out of my chair with his 87 yard punt return for a touchdown, the first time a Cajun has returned a punt for a score since 2002 (Nick Dugas.)
It got the Commissioner out of his chair in the next booth as well.
San Diego State put together a nice drive on the next possession and I became a fan of replay. That was the drive where they were credited with a first down at the UL five yard line, but a review moved the football back just enough to give the Cajuns the ball on downs.
The Cajuns then put together a great drive of their own. Alonzo Harris got the Cajuns out of a hole with a 25 yard run and Brad McGuires fake punt pass to Bill Bentley on fourth down moved the football into Aztecs territory. A pass to Lawson gave the Cajuns first and goal from the three, but it was fourth down and the Cajuns still had a yard and a half to go.
There have been some that have criticized Mark Hudspeth for going for it on fourth down and not taking the chip shot three points. But those folks need to remember that Hudspeth has been rolling the dice all year: Three fake punts, a fake field goal, three onside kicks, going for it on fourth down in your own territory. A play action long pass on fourth and inches.
That's how Hud rolls. This one just didn't work. I'm sure as hell not going to second guess. Those chances he's taken have paid off more often than not.
Gautiers pass was intercepted but the Aztecs got just one first down before having to punt.
At the half, San Diego State had 21 net yards on 20 carries. Hillman had 32 yards on 17 carries. The Cajuns were in good shape.
At halftime I went downstairs and that was a mistake. I got confused and took the wrong elevator and by the time I got back up to the booth, it was less than four minutes before kickoff. If it had been a normal halftime of fifteen minutes, I would have been late. But fortunately, it was a twenty minute halftime (thanks, ESPN) and I was back for the kickoff.
It took just three plays for the Cajuns to get in the end zone. Blaine Gautier hit Ladarius Green with a perfect pass to put the Cajuns up 19-3. But I got a feeling of foreboding when Brett Baer's extra point hit the right upright.
It took SDSU only two plays to get the touchdown back and the extra point cut the Cajuns lead to nine. Up in the booth, I shook my head. Too easy.
Gautier hit Green on a 40 yarder to put the Cajuns in field goal range. But on the kick, Daniel Quave moved when defensive lineman J. J. Autele flinched. The Cajuns were flagged for a false start. Autele would be a major player later in the game in a similar situation. Hudspeth elected to punt after the penalty and Jemarlous Moten and Bill Bentley combined on a great save to put the Aztecs at the one yard line.
The Cajuns got the ball in great field position after holding the Aztecs without a first down, and again, Hillman got nothing. But a bad snap from center cost the Cajuns six yards and Baer again punted to the one yard line.
But on this possession, SDSU moved the football. A Lionel Stokes interception was nullified by an obvious interference call on Melvin White. Quarterback Ryan Lindley hit tight end Gavin Escobar for 32 yards to the Cajuns 26. Hillman got ten around left end thanks to an obvious holding penalty that wasn't called. Bill Bentley probably would have had Hillman for a one yard gain. The Aztecs scored on the next play to close within two at 19-17.
But the Cajuns came right back as the third quarter became the fourth, and Gautier's third touchdown pass of the game put Louisiana up by nine again.
San Diego State drove on their next possession, helped by an interference call against Lance Kelley, but Abel Perez missed a 36 yard field goal--badly. I was reminded of something I had said earlier in the week on one of our Bird's Eye View shows at Walk-Ons.
If it comes down to the kickers, the Cajuns have a big advantage.
San Diego State scored on its next possession to make it a two point game again. And, there was still plenty of time: just under six minutes.
The Cajuns, however, put together another great drive, highlighted by the best catch of the year on a 59 yard gain by Darryl Surgent. I still don't know how he caught the pass. The gain was huge, since it would have only been a fifteen yard interference penalty had he not made the catch. Lawson then caught a 24 yarder for a first and goal. It was really simple. Get the touchdown and end the game.
Now, I thought the game was, for the most part, very well officiated. I had scores of fans ask me about the officiating after the game and they were surprised when I told them I thought the Big XII crew did a very good job. But there's no question Ladarius Green was interfered with on the second down play and may have been on third down as well. That meant the Cajuns had to settle for the Baer field goal and the Cajuns were just up by five.
I had no problem from an officiating standpoint on the interference call on fourth down that kept the final drive alive for the Aztecs.
San Diego State scored with 35 seconds left. I looked into the next booth. The Commissioner looked like someone shot his puppy.
After the touchdown put the Aztecs ahead my mind was racing. I looked at the scoreboard and remembered the one point loss in the Cajuns' last bowl appearance. I thought of the two missed extra points, the false start on the field goal and the interception on fourth down.
But I also remembered the game against ULM when I had pretty much thrown in the towel.
And I wasn't going to let go of the rope.
When the Cajuns got the ball with thirty seconds left, I simply talked about how many yards the Cajuns needed to give Baer a chance.
52 yards, I said. That would move the ball to the 30 yard line.
Gautier hit Javone Lawson with a pass, but Lawson didn't get out of bounds. The clock stopped long enough to move the chains. That wasn't going to get it done. They needed a big play. And, Gautier then hit Lawson again, this time for 26 to get the ball to the 43. But they needed another 12-13 yards. Harry Peoples' catch got them only five.
I said as Baer went out, I didn't know if he had the leg to get it there.
What happened next was reminiscent of a game I did last year at Troy.
In that game, the Cajuns were flagged on a field goal attempt. The officials said a Cajun player verbalized the snap count to get Troy to false start. The penalty was for disconcerting signals, something I'd never heard of.
As the Cajuns lined up for the 55 yarder, the aforementioned J. J. Autele flinched. And then he flinched again. The flags came out and Autele clapped his hands and high fived his teammates.
Not so fast, my friend.
Autele got caught with a violation. I've never heard the term illegal stemming before. But the five yard penalty made it a fifty yard attempt.
Still no guarantee. But if it came down to the kicking game, the Cajuns had the advantage.
The Commissioner was pacing.
I made the decision to watch the monitor. I wanted to check for accuracy. As the kick neared the goalposts, Steve started to jump up and down. I saw the ball go through the uprights.
The Commissioner jumped into the air. He had hang time. Pretty good for a 62 year old guy.
Watching the celebration on the field was surreal.
After the game and after the trophy presentation, we went to a break and turned it over to Mark Pope for the postgame highlight show. Scott had come back up to the booth. We all hugged one another.
We had on our monitor the locker room celebration. Sodas were being sprayed everywhere. There was a lot of dancing. President Savoie dances like I do.
After we got off the air and packed up I said goodbye to Steve and Scott. When I got off the elevator I walked past the locker room and saw Tyla Hudspeth. We hugged and chatted for a minute. She saw my shirt, which had a piece of rope pinned to it. They were handed out on the plane before the Arkansas State game. She touched it. "You held on to the rope," she said and I nodded.
I started to make my way back to the Hyatt. As I got outside I ran into Jim Radcliffe. Jim is a very good friend of Scott's from Atlanta who puts together the "Geaux" magazine. He handed me a victory cigar and we chatted as we walked. He was headed to the Marriott. We said our goodbyes when we got to the Hyatt.
I went up to the third floor where the fans were either in the restaurant or at the bar. I visited with those I knew and had a couple of beers. I got a big hug from former Governor Kathleeen Blanco. Finally, I made my way up to my room, exhausted after the long day.
But I couldn't sleep. I watched Sportscenter and saw Surgent's catch on the Top Ten plays of the day. Now it was nearly 3am. I was ready to turn in. But before I did, I went to my Facebook page and posted my thoughts, which consisted of three words:
Wow. Just Wow.