TEAMS: East Carolina Pirates (8-4, 7-1 Conference USA) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt Conference)
TIME: Saturday Dec. 22, 12 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: Louisiana-Lafayette -5; Over/Under 66 points
Prepare for points in the New Orleans. Mark Hudspeth’s uptempo offense has yielded 34.8 points per game, and is paired against an East Carolina defense allowing 30.7 points per game. Ruffin McNiell, a product of the growing Mike Leach coaching tree, has his Pirates (coincidence, I assure you) are registering 31.3 points. ULL is giving up 27.6 per game.
A more prolific offensive exhibition than Thursday night’s Poinsettia Bowl (one offensive touchdown) should be in order. Each team features a balanced offensive approach this season, which should be enough to keep each defense’s hands full.
The New Orleans Bowl is all the postseason history Louisiana-Lafayette has. Hudspeth led the Ragin’ Cajuns to a 32-30 win over San Diego State in the 2011 installment, also the program’s first bowl appearance ever. Hudspeth’s a chief contributor to the Sun Belt’s gain in stature. This year, the conference qualified and sent more teams to bowl games than any season in its history.
Tumult from East Carolina’s identity shift under McNeill began to settle in 2012. The Pirates went 7-1 in Conference-USA. Saturday’s appearance in the New Orleans Bowl marks the program’s sixth bowl berth in the last seven seasons. However, in that stretch, the Pirates have won just once, defeating Boise State in the 2007 Hawai’i Bowl.
East Carolina matches up favorably with Louisiana-Lafayette in some key facets; the Pirates are 35th in passing offense, while the Ragin’ Cajuns give up nearly 284 yards per game in the air. But ECU is playing what equates to a road game. Lafayatte is a little over a two-hour drive from New Orleans, and last season ULL faithful filled the Superdome. Attendance surpassed 42,000, which the Associated Press reports was a New Orleans Bowl record.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Hudspeth altered his offense in 2012 to better accentuate the talent available to him. In 2011, the Ragin’ Cajuns had an almost even split of run and pass. This season, ULL has rushed 438 times to 358 passes. Three ball carriers — running backs Alonzo Harris and Effrem Reed, and quarterback Terrance Broadway — have gone for a combined 1833 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Add Torrey Pierce‘s 253 yards and three touchdowns, and the Ragin’ Cajun rush ranks in the nation’s top 40. East Carolina’s linebacker duo of Derrell Johnson and Gabriel Woullard are tasked with slowing the multifaceted Cajun ground game. Johnson was an All C-USA honoree with 58 tackles, seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
ECU’s defensive strategy can’t be reliant solely on containing the rush, though. While not in the top 30 nationally like a season ago, the Ragin’ Cajuns can and will still air it out to a variety of receivers. Four Cajuns have caught for over 500 yards: Harry Peoples, Darryl Surgent, Jamal Robinson and Javone Lawson.
The diversity of ULL’s passing game should keep the East Carolina secondary business. The Pirates closed out the regular season reenacting the epic 2001 GMAC Bowl with Marshall, in the process giving up 419 yards to the pass-happy Thundering Herd. However, Marshall also exceeded 200 yards rushing. ULL might use Marshall’s approach as a template for attacking the Pirate defense.
Broadway doesn’t throw as often as Blaine Gautier did a year ago when he surpassed Jake Delhomme for the program’s single season record. However, Broadway’s been slightly more effective in a few areas: 65.7 percent completions to Gautier’s 62.8 percent; 8.9 yards per completion to 8.6. Where Gautier was more effective was throwing 23 touchdowns to just six interceptions; Broadway has been intercepted eight times and scored 16.
ECU Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, another Texas Tech product, employed McNeill’s vision in a more balanced fashion this season than the regime’s first two in Greenville. The departure of big armed quarterback Dominique Davis paved the way for Shane Carder to take over, though Carder fulfills a much different role. Davis passed 494 times for 3225 yards in 2011; Carder has thrown 371 passes for 2878 yards.
Carder has a modest 21 touchdowns in the air, but another eight on the ground. Now, that doesn’t necessarily make Carder the typical dual threat quarterback. He’s accrued 288 yards on the ground, third most among Pirate ball carriers. But he averages less than a yard per attempt. He’s unlikely to tuck and blow past La.-Lafayette defensive end Emeka Onyenekwu, who has 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss on the season.
That duty is left to 1000-yard running back Vintavious Cooper, a junior college transfer whose presence has given the ECU offense far more balance. The run-to-pass disparity a season ago was a almost 150 more pass attempts than rushes; this season, the difference is 16. Cooper’s ability to effectively challenge the Ragin’ Cajun front seven is crucial for opening space to talented wide receiver Justin Hardy. Look for standout Cajun cornerback Jemarlous Moten to pair up with Hardy frequently.
Hardy was a 1st Team selection to the All C-USA team at wide out. The former walk-on caught 10 touchdown passes, and his exceeded 1000 yards on his 83 receptions. Hardy can also be a factor in special teams. On punt return, he averages a little under 10 yards an opportunity. ULL has given up a little over 8 yards per punt return.