UL’s goal last year was not to paint the town red, but to “Paint the Quarter Red.” The Cajuns did that in a big way, and not just with the pulsating 32-30 last-play win over San Diego State in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
The 11-year-old bowl’s highest-ever attendance was 30,228 in 2009, and that record was basically gone on the night the Cajuns were invited to their first-ever Division I bowl game. By the time it was over, 42,481 were on hand in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — a 46 percent increase from the previous year, a 41 percent increase from the old attendance record and more fans than 14 other bowl games drew last season.
Among the games the New Orleans Bowl outdrew was the Independence Bowl (41,728), and the Big Easy game wasn’t far behind both the long-established Outback Bowl and the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
UL sold approximately 18,900 tickets through its on-campus ticket office, by far the largest sale of ticket allotment in New Orleans Bowl history. At an average cost of $50 per ticket, that was a nearly $1 million boon to the Cajun athletic department. Many schools playing in non-BCS bowl games struggle to sell ticket allotments and end up losing money on bowl games, but the Ragin’ Cajuns laughed all the way to the bank in 2011.
So did bowl officials, who had a significant sale locally in the Crescent City area to UL fans and alumni. The record sales and crowd came despite San Diego State having only a small contingent of followers, and that should change this year with East Carolina providing the Cajun competition for the Saturday, Dec. 22, 11 a.m. contest.
The Pirates went 7-1 in Conference USA play (8-4 overall with losses to North Carolina, South Carolina and Navy), but the more important figure to the New Orleans Bowl is 47,013. That was ECU’s average attendance in six home games this year — by far the highest among the country’s non-automatic qualifying BCS conferences (the next-closest is 35,809 at Central Florida). The Pirates never drew less than 45,000 at any game this year — or last year.
If only a fraction of that following makes the trip to New Orleans the week before Christmas, this year’s game could hit the 50,000 mark, which would put the New Orleans Bowl in the top half of the nation’s bowl group.
The attendance should be greater, but it’ll be nearly impossible to match last year’s finish when Brett Baer drilled a 50-yard field goal with 0:00 on the clock to give the Cajuns an improbable win. SDSU quarterback Ryan Lindley and wide receiver Colin Lockett linked up three times for touchdowns, the last one with 35 seconds left to give the Aztecs a 30-29 lead. But game MVP Blaine Gautier — who threw for a bowl-record 470 yards and three scores — drove UL to the SDSU 38 with four seconds remaining, and a five-yard penalty on the Aztecs just before the field goal gave Baer five more yards to work with.
That success shouldn’t have been a surprise. Baer has since become the NCAA’s No. 2 all-time career leader in field goal accuracy (41-of-46 in his career). But the other main character in UL’s bowl win last year has changed, with Gautier going down with a broken hand in the Cajuns’ win over Tulane and sophomore Terrance Broadway taking over as full-time quarterback starter. And even though the Baton Rouge native didn’t start the first two league games, Broadway wound up leading the Sun Belt in total yards and passing efficiency in conference games.