NEW ORLEANS, LA (WAFB) - There's something wonderful and pure about a fan base that hasn't been jaded yet. One that's suffered for years in the desert, only to finally devour a Ritz cracker, as if it were a Ruth Chris' ribeye.
LSU fans can relate to the high UL-Lafayette fans are on. All you have to do is look back to 1995. After six straight losing seasons, Tiger fans rejoiced over an Independence Bowl win against Nick Saban's Michigan State Spartans. LSU finished with a 7-4-1 overall record. Put up that record and travel to that bowl destination these days with any regularity...and you won't last long in Baton Rouge.
With that in mind, the Ragin' Cajun backers, who comprised basically all of the nearly 43,000 fans gathered in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Saturday night, felt a high they had never experienced. Their team was finally playing in the postseason, on national television, for a bowl trophy.
And they won.
Ragin Cajun kicker Brett Baer blasted a three-iron-like shot that coiled and spun it's way just inside the left upright. The 50-yard field goal had more than enough distance as time expired. Partisans in vermilion and white roared. They leaped into the air and stomped the Superdome floor beneath them. Final from The New Orleans Bowl - UL-Lafayette 32, San Diego State 30.
"This is awesome! What a game!" exclaimed former UL-Lafayette star and NFL veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley on the field minutes after.
"This is like winning the national championship for us," a thrilled Ragin Cajun fan enthusiastically added.
Indeed, it's been a truly wonderful fall for the program. First-year head coach Mark Hudspeth was just what the doctor ordered, blending an "ole school" approach and mentality with some new school ways to produce stunning results. After a 3-9 disaster led to Rickey Bustle's ouster after the 2010 season, expectations were hardly high for the coach with the buzz cut. Of the 120 FBS schools, the Cajuns were consistently projected in the bottom five.
But, the Cajuns and their fans believed in Hudspeth's "juice." And, everyone drank up.
As the wins came, so did the crowds. There were days in the 90s when you could shoot a shotgun through the student side of Cajun Field and not hit a soul. The students were certainly All-Americans at tailgating, but busts when it came to actually getting into the stadium. That too has changed, with the Cajuns attracting a school record of nearly 30,000 fans per home game. The product was high-scoring and exciting. Most importantly, it was successful.
Hudspeth, without a doubt, has the opportunity to take UL-Lafayette even further next season. Of the 51 players on the Cajuns' offensive and defensive two-deep, 34 of them will be back next season. And, all of the kicking and return specialists are likewise returning, including Lafayette's future mayor, Baer. "Baer For Mayor"...catchy, isn't it?
Not to contradict, but there are huge pieces to replace. The Cajuns lose 9 defensive starters, along with star tight end Ladarius Green. Green's NFL future is obviously a bright one. And credit Bustle for recruiting and bringing those players to Lafayette. We are often too quick to completely slam the predecessor and give all the credit to the new toast of the town. Bustle did some good things. He just could never turn the corner and eventually bottomed out.
Hudspeth, meanwhile, will have quarterback and New Orleans Bowl MVP Blaine Gautier back for his senior year. The Lutcher High School product and first ever Warrick Dunn Award Winner (The WAFB-TV High School Player of the Year Award) scorched the Aztecs for an astounding 470 yards passing and 3 touchdowns. He's a great kid, with a warm and engaging personality, who should be the unquestioned leader of this team in 2012. Receivers Javone Lawson and Darryl Surgent were electric in the Superdome and will also give Mr. Gautier two very nice weapons next season.
Hudspeth will likely learn of new expectations very quickly. People will want more. You can be a victim of your own success, however unlikely it is. After leading the New Orleans Saints to their first winning season and playoff appearance EVER in 1987, head coach Jim Mora was flabbergasted when fans were disappointed with the Saints 10-6 mark the following year. It's simply the nature of the beast.
But, it appears Hudspeth is equipped to feed that beast. The bowl triumph and it's undeniable thrill factor, should give the Cajuns a nice boost down the final stretch of recruiting. Lafayette is an exploding town with something always going on. It can almost recruit itself. Why can't UL-Lafayette become Southern Miss? The Cajuns can also become a strong mid-major program that goes bowling almost every year. UL-Lafayette should envision taking that next step.
Because they now have their taste.