The East Carolina Pirates are back in the postseason as they head to the RL Carriers New Orleans Bowl to take on the Sun Belt Conference's Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
ECU just got past the Marshall Thundering Herd for a 65-59 double overtime victory in its finale to finish the regular season with an 8-4 record and a 7-1 mark in Conference USA action. The Pirates tied UCF for first place in the league's East Division but did not get a chance to play for the conference title because of their head-to-head loss to the Knights. Coach Ruffin McNeill is 19-18 as the team's head coach as he nears the conclusion of his third full season. He guided Texas Tech to a 41-31 decision over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl on Jan. 2, 2010 in his only prior bowl game as the interim coach.
Mark Hudspeth's Ragin' Cajuns finished the season on a three-game winning streak to post an 8-4 regular season record including a 6-2 mark in SBC games. Louisiana's most recent loss came after it surrendered two touchdowns in the final 1:42 in a near upset of Florida. This is the team's second straight trip to the New Orleans Bowl after a 41-year stretch without any bowl game appearances.
This will be the 11th time these schools face off on the gridiron. Louisiana owns a 6-4 lead, but the series has been idle since ECU's 20-10 win in Lafayette in 1990.
East Carolina has found success through the air and on the ground with Shane Carden under center and Vintavious Cooper in the backfield. The Pirates are averaging 407.5 yards and 31.3 points per game.
Carden won the starting job from Rio Johnson after week two and has done a very good job for a first-year starter. The sophomore quarterback extended his streak of games with a touchdown pass to eight versus Marshall by going 38-of-47 passes for 439 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for three scores including the game-winner in the second overtime. His performance this season has given his opponent's head coach a high opinion of him.
" He is very talented. He runs the ball extremely well and can throw the ball extremely well," said Hudspeth. "He can scramble and prolong plays to make plays down the field."
Cooper provides ECU with a ton of offensive punch on the ground. He eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in the season finale and tallied eight rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.
"It means a lot [to get 1,000 yards]," said Cooper, who finished with 52 yards on 14 carries and had two touchdown runs to push his season total to 1,030 yards. "I feel like it is an accomplishment for the whole offense because it is rare that you have a 1,000-yard rusher. I am excited about for myself and my offensive line."
Justin Hardy has made Carden's first year under center much easier. The sophomore wideout has all the tools needed to frustrate opposing secondaries. Hardy has amassed impressive totals of 1,046 yards, 10 TDs, and 83 receptions. Hardy set a school record with 16 catches against the Thundering Herd.
In comparison to rest of the C-USA, ECU is an above average defensive team. The Pirates are ranked sixth in the league in scoring defense (30.7 ppg) and fifth in total defense (417.3 ypg).
Damon Magazu and Jeremy Grove have each reached the 70-tackle plateau with Groce 72 and 71 total stops, respectively. Derrell Johnson has been solid off the edge, collecting 11 tackles for loss. Chip Thompson is the team's best playmaker in the secondary with three interceptions.
Louisiana closed out the regular season with a 39.3 point per game average over the span of its final three contests. Due to the team's dual-threat under center, it was one of the top offenses in the Sun Belt.
Terrance Broadway completed 185-of-283 passes this season for 2,531 yards, 16 TDs, and eight interceptions. The sophomore also made an impact on the ground with 661 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. South Alabama's head coach Joey Jones noted how difficult Broadway was to gameplan for prior to the Jaguars' matchup with Louisiana.
"(Broadway) is doing a great job running the football; he is scary when he pulls it down. And they are throwing it well all the time, they were already good at that so it has given diversity in that they can run it or throw it," said Jones. "They have big offensive linemen who run the zone very well, they have a complete offense that you have to defend all over the field."
Possession receiver Harry Peoples and playmaker Darryl Surgent are the top wideouts in the Cajuns' attack.
Alonzo Harris (761 yards, eight TDs) is the team's leading rusher, and he appeared to fully recovered from an injury that kept him out of the team's second to last game as he racked up 127 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries in the season finale versus Florida Atlantic. McNeill suggested the big guys up front has been the most important facet of the Cajuns' offense.
"I think one of the keys to their team is the play of their offensive line. They are very big. We have faced our fair share of large offensive lines this year in North Carolina and South Carolina, but Louisiana's will still rank as one of the largest we are facing this season."
Luckily for the Cajuns, their impressive offense has been able to mask their suspect play on the defensive side of the ball, as they allow 27.6 points and 428.7 yards of total offense per contest.
Emeka Onyenekwu was selected to the All-Sun Belt Conference team after leading the unit in both quarterback sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (12.5), ranking third and sixth in the Sun Belt, respectively. Junior Justin Anderson registered a team-high 94 total stops.