New Orleans Bowl Update: Sunday, 12/18, 4 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS -- Down by a point, no time outs left and starting on its own 18-yard-line with 30 seconds left.

Okay, honestly, how many Ragin’ Cajun fans thought their UL football team was going to somehow pull out a victory late Saturday night?

Probably about the same number that thought when the 2011 season began that the Cajuns would wind up with nine victories, and hoisting a bowl championship trophy.

As Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth would say, the believers never let go of the rope.

It might have been Brett Baer who toed through the soon-to-be-legendary 50-yard field goal on the final play of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, giving the Cajuns an unlikely 32-30 victory over San Diego State. But in a season that was full of near-miracles, it’s not a stretch to think that those believers lassoed that line-drive kick with an invisible rope and tugged it through the Mercedes-Benz Superdome uprights.

With the way the Cajuns’ 2011 season unfolded, and the way the drama built Saturday in UL’s first-ever Division I bowl appearance, nothing’s beyond the realm of possibility.

After all, 369 days ago, the Cajuns didn’t have a head football coach after a 3-9 season that left the Cajun faithful swathed in disappointment once again. Four months ago, one national football publication ranked the UL program 120th out of 120 NCAA FBS programs.

Now the Cajuns rank among the country’s top three in single-season turnarounds. It will indeed be a happy holiday season for the squad and for nearly all of the record 42,841 fans that turned the Superdome into a raucous red sea.

“This year, we’ve been behind in the second half, in the fourth quarter,” Hudspeth said while wearing a T-shirt that symbolized New Orleans Bowl champions. “A lot of times, lesser teams could have said that’s it, we gave it our best shot. Not these guys. We win on hard work, we win on belief.”

Even the most staunch believers had doubts, though, when San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley hit Colin Lockett with a 12-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds left. The third TD hookup between the two in the game gave the Aztecs of the Mountain West Conference a 30-29 lead, and it stayed that way when a two-point conversion pass was ruled incomplete on the back line of the end zone.

Darryl Surgent – whose scintillating 87-yard punt return touchdown early in the second quarter gave UL a 13-3 lead – was bottled up on the ensuing kickoff return and the Cajuns started on their own 18 with 0:30 left. Quarterback Blaine Gautier, who minutes later would hoist his own trophy as the game’s Most Valuable Player, had no time outs to work with and quickly hit Javone Lawson with passes of 13 and 26 yards. But both plays ended in bounds and the game clock started as soon as the chains were set after both plays, and by the time Gautier ran up to spike the ball and kill the clock, only seven seconds were left and the ball was still at the SDSU 43.

A quick out pass to Harry Peoples got five more precious yards, but the clock was then down to four seconds. Baer, whose reputation was stellar for accuracy but not exceptional for distance, came on to line up for a 55-yard field goal effort – six yards longer than he’d ever kicked one in college.

Just before the snap, though, an Aztec defensive lineman flinched, simulating the reaction to a snap, and flags flew as UL’s offensive line also moved. Officials ruled the Aztecs moved first – a call shown to be correct on a Sunday morning ESPN highlight reel – and Baer moved the kicking tee up five
yards for the 50-yard try.

The kick had plenty of distance, long enough to have covered the five extra yards, but it was tailing to the left as it slotted itself just inside the left upright. Would it have been good from 55 yards?

“I have no idea,” Baer said, not long after his wild celebratory sprint around the Superdome turf and a ride to the locker room on his teammates’ shoulders. “I didn’t even see it go in. I just took off running.”

“It’s like any other game,” said SDSU coach Rocky Long afterward. “The team that makes the most plays wins. We had opportunities, and we didn’t make as many plays as they did. We missed a field goal, they made a field goal. That’s what happens.”

Long’s right. That’s what happens … when you don’t let go of the rope.

“We fight so hard,” Gautier said while his teammates were still celebrating on the field. “We always talk about the fourth quarter being our quarter. Words are just hard to find. It’s just a great feeling to be able to share this moment, something that’s going down in history.”

Gautier made some history of his own, setting bowl records for passing yards (470) on the way to the second-highest single-game yardage total in school history. His three TD passes also gave him 23 for the season, a UL record, passing Jake Delhomme’s mark of 20 set in both 1995 and 1996. He had nine completions of 20-plus yards in the bowl game, giving him 56 such plays this season.

Lawson also set a bowl record with 193 receiving yards on his bowl-record-tying nine catches, and went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season as the first UL receiver over that mark since Fred Stamps in 2002.

Those were only a few of the superlatives in the offense-dominated game, but the only superlative that really mattered was still displayed on the Superdome scoreboard after the bowl-record throng had long since headed toward Bourbon Street.

By that time, Hudspeth was already thinking of the future, to a 2012 season that is awash in challenges – not the least of which is somehow making an encore performance.

“We’ve got nine starters back on offense, we’ve got Brett back kicking and punting,” Hudspeth said. “We’ve got a few holes we’ve got to fill on defense due to graduation. But we’re on schedule. Some may say we’re ahead of schedule. I’m proud of the guys, the way they changed their mindset.”

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