A year after a thrilling win in New Orleans in its first bowl game, Louisiana-Lafayette is heading back to the Big Easy.
The Ragin' Cajuns face East Carolina in the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday, a matchup of teams that are both looking for a fourth straight victory to post a nine-win season.
Louisiana-Lafayette tied a school record with nine wins last season, and a 32-30 victory over San Diego State at the Superdome in this bowl game last Dec. 17 was one of its most exciting. After giving up a touchdown with 35 seconds left, the Cajuns drove 49 yards on four plays to set up Brett Baer's 50-yard field goal as time expired.
Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4) again has a chance at a ninth win after earning three consecutive victories to end the regular season. The Cajuns' only loss in their final five contests was a 27-20 defeat at then-No. 7 Florida on Nov. 10, a game they led with less than two minutes left only to lose on a touchdown off a blocked punt with two seconds to play.
"It's all about these young men and the hard work they've put in," second-year coach Mark Hudspeth said. "I couldn't be more proud of these guys. Our goal is to finish with a 9-4 record for two straight seasons."
They'll have a different starting quarterback for this attempt. Terrance Broadway, a sophomore who transferred from Houston, took over after last year's New Orleans Bowl most valuable player, Blaine Gautier, broke his left hand in a win over Florida International on Sept. 29.
Gautier returned for the final two games but only made brief appearances off the bench. Broadway has 2,526 passing yards and 661 on the ground, leaving him 258 shy of surpassing Gautier's school record for total yards. Gautier's single-season marks for total touchdowns (26), completion percentage (62.8) and passing efficiency (153.6) are also well within Broadway's reach.
"Terrance is leading this team and he's playing at a very high level," Hudspeth said.
Broadway and the Cajuns will next face an East Carolina team that also ended the regular season with a three-game win streak.
That run assured the Pirates (8-4) of returning to the postseason after they finished 5-7 in 2011, ending a streak of five straight years reaching a bowl game.
"All bowl games are exciting to me. Not going to one last year really makes you even more excited," third-year coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We're looking forward to going to New Orleans."
Quarterback Shane Carden topped 300 yards in four of the final six games and threw for a school-record 439 in a 65-59 overtime victory over Marshall in the season finale Nov. 23.
"Last year, we had to go home and we were home for too long," said Carden, who made his first collegiate start Sept. 15. "We're really excited to go play against Louisiana-Lafayette."
Carden's top target is fellow sophomore Justin Hardy, who has 83 catches for 1,046 yards and 10 touchdowns. The first-team all-Conference USA selection, who had a program-record 16 receptions against Marshall, needs 78 yards to surpass Dwayne Harris' single-season school mark from 2010.
Hardy and junior Vintavious Cooper gave the Pirates a 1,000-yard receiver and rusher in the same season for the first time. Cooper, the C-USA newcomer of the year, had 1,030 yards on 191 carries as he switched to running back after playing quarterback for two years at Southwest Mississippi Community College.
East Carolina, scheduled to join the Big East beginning in 2014, is seeking to snap a three-game bowl losing streak. The Pirates are 5-7 all-time in bowl games with the most recent win coming on a last-second field goal in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl against Boise State.
Louisiana-Lafayette has won six of 10 all-time meetings with East Carolina but lost 20-10 in the most recent matchup Sept. 22, 1990, when the school was known as Southwestern Louisiana.
It's back to the Big Easy for Louisiana-Lafayette, which won this game last season in its first bowl trip since 1970. East Carolina is back in the postseason for the first time since 2010, though the Pirates haven't won a bowl game since 2007. Expect to see a lot of yards and points, as each team averages more than 250 passing yards per game while both defenses rank among the worst in the FBS against the pass.