Cajuns await bowl bid

by Walter Pierce

What the Cajuns don't need to cement their spot in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, apparently, is a Saturday victory.

If there was any doubting the Ragin' Cajun football team's dislike of their in-state conference rivals, Brad McGuire laid that to rest this week.

"I was standing on the sidelines saying, Man, no way I'm going to lose to Monroe in my last game at Cajun Field," McGuire said Monday as UL's team and staff shifted focus from its near-miracle 36-35 win over UL Monroe Saturday to this weekend's Sun Belt Conference title-deciding game at Arkansas State.

McGuire, one of 17 seniors playing at Cajun Field for the final time last weekend, is part of the only senior class never to lose to ULM since both entered the Sun Belt.

"That means a lot to me," he said. "Our thing is to make other teams say our name. We're the University of Louisiana, and winning like we did Saturday puts a stamp on that."

The pulsating victory, one in which the Cajuns needed two scores and an onside kick in the final 2:05 and still had to hold off a last-ditch ULM drive in the closing seconds, boosted the Cajuns to 8-2 overall and 6-1 in Sun Belt play. UL, winners of eight of its last nine after an opening loss at Oklahoma State - ranked No. 2 in this week's BCS rankings and the AP poll - heads to Arkansas State Saturday (2 p.m., ESPN3 online), needing a win to clinch no worse than a share of the league title.

What the Cajuns don't need to cement their spot in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, apparently, is a Saturday victory. UL's assurance of a spot in the Dec. 17 game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome has been a poorly kept secret since it took its seventh win of the year, a 45-20 win at Middle Tennessee two weeks ago.

"If it was up to me, I'd invite them right now," said Paul Valteau, Orleans Parish civil sheriff and chairman of the bowl committee who was at Saturday's game - and that comment came prior to the Cajun win. "We want em.

"The only thing we're waiting for, the committee has to have assurances that the conference champion is taken care of (has a bowl invitation)."

If the Cajuns don't win the league title, the New Orleans Bowl cannot by contract extend its formal invitation until the Bowl in Mobile - the Sun Belt's other bowl partner - locks in an agreement with the league champion. The New Orleans Bowl has taken the league winner nine times in its 10-year existence, but is not obligated to do that as long as the league winner has another bowl opportunity.

A source close to the UL program said the New Orleans Bowl announcement could come as early as next Tuesday - the same day that Cajun first-year coach Mark Hudspeth is the featured speaker at The Independent's Lecture Series (noon at the Cajundome Convention Center).

Hudspeth, who stands fourth this week in the national fan voting for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award, acknowledged the significance of Saturday's ULM win while also saying the team won't have a problem re-tooling for a potential conference championship game at ASU.

"I may have been in some bigger wins," he said, "but we'll never have a more exciting one. Just to see our guys celebrate, running on the field, hugging each other, a lot of them crying that's why you coach, for moments like that. But they've worked too hard to not be ready for this weekend."

Valteau's excitement about the Cajuns coming to the Crescent City was boosted again with the announced 28,176 crowd at Cajun Field Saturday. UL finished its unbeaten 5-0 home season, a first since 1987, and drew an average of 29,171 fans per game - almost 4,000 better than the previous best.

"Nobody else in the conference has that," McGuire said about the near-capacity crowds and the new raucous atmosphere in the stadium. "What we have when you walk into that stadium now, the Cajun Field experience, it's special. Fans don't have any idea how much that helps us, gets us going."

ASU's Red Wolves, picked fifth in the preseason coaches' poll (UL was picked eighth), is 5-0 in Sun Belt play and already holds a win over the league's other one-loss team (5-1 Western Kentucky). The Wolves lead the conference in both total offense and total defense, but the Cajuns have beaten ASU in each of the last three seasons.