East Carolina has improved since September but faces a pretty heavy burden of proof against a loud Cajun crowd and an explosive Cajun offense. Below are picks, players to watch and more.
5 Players To Watch
Justin Anderson (WLB, Cajuns, Jr.). It is rather difficult to single out one member of the UL-Lafayette front seven to watch. The starting defensive line of end Cordian Hagans, bandit Emeka Onyenekwu and tackles Justin Hmilton and Christian Ringo combined for 37 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks this season, and the line's effectiveness has freed up Justin Anderson to make plays all over the field. Anderson led the Cajuns in tackles (85.0) and logged eight tackles for loss (two sacks), an interception and five passes broken up. This is not a particularly good defense, but it is an active one, and Anderson is its leader.
Terrance Broadway (QB, Cajuns, So.). The Cajun offense is the single best unit in this game, and that is thanks primarily to Broadway, a Houston transfer (and former star recruit) who replaced injured 2011 starter (and bowl winner) Blaine Gautier in the starting lineup and, after some early stops and starts (6.5 yards per pass attempt in a loss to North Texas, three interceptions in a loss to Arkansas State), exploded. In his last four Sun Belt starts, Broadway completed 68 percent of his passes at 10.8 yards per pass and rushed for 105 yards per game. He has taken this offense to another place, and he almost took the Cajuns to a win over Florida in Gainesville.
Shane Carden (QB, Pirates, So.). Broadway is not the only quarterback who began the year as a backup and ended it as a star. Carden replaced the entirely ineffective Rio Johnson in the starting lineup two games into the season, and after some misfires (he was just 13-for-27 against a woeful Southern Miss team, threw for just 124 yards against North Carolina and threw three picks against UTEP), he, too, took off. In his last seven games, Carden is completing 70 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He was magnificent in the season finale against Marshall: 38-for-47 for 439 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
Justin Hardy (IR, Pirates, So.) and Harry Peoples (WR, Cajuns, Sr.). These teams' starting running backs are no slouches -- ULL's Alonzo Harris and ECU's Vintavious Cooper have combined for 1,791 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns -- but these two No. 1 receivers are both fast and dangerous. Hardy is a particularly efficient weapon for Harden; he caught 73 percent of his passes with enough burst to average 9.2 yards per target for the season. He serves ECU's needs: if the Pirates need smart, short passing, he can do that (11 catches for 95 yards versus UTEP, 16 for 171 versus Marshall). If they need a big-play threat, he can do that (17 catches for 388 yards and four scores versus UCF, Memphis and UAB). Peoples is the same way. The rest of the Cajun receiving corps is made up mostly of big-play, low-efficiency weapons like Javone Lawson, Darryl Surgent and Jamal Robinson (combined: 1,613 yards, 10.5 per target, 58 percent catch rate), but Peoples is a rock, catching 77 percent of his passes for the season. ECU will throw more frequently than ULL, but Peoples is just as important to his offense as Hardy is to his.
4 Reasons To Watch
1. Because this might happen again.
Mark Hudspeth's second season as the Ragin' Cajuns' head coach has had quite a few ups and downs. A solid road win over Troy was followed by a pasting at the hands of Oklahoma State. A blowout of FIU was followed by a blown lead against North Texas (they led 20-6, lost 30-23) and a 23-point loss to eventual conference champion Arkansas State. But since the calendar flipped to November, ULL has been very, very good. The same could be said for East Carolina, which was 5-4 (following a blowout loss to Navy) heading into November but went 3-0 to clinch bowl eligibility (and then some).
2. Because these teams have made things interesting of late. ULL held a seven-point lead over Florida with two minutes remaining in Gainesville before falling; the next week, the Cajuns trailed Western Kentucky by 10 with three minutes remaining before charging back to win. They led Florida Atlantic by seven midway through the fourth quarter before finally putting the game away.
Meanwhile, East Carolina let Tulane hang around for most of four quarters before putting the Green Wave away, then scored with four seconds left to force overtime against Marshall and, two overtimes later, pull out a win. After a nondescript first couple of months of the season, replete mostly with easy wins and decent-sized losses, these two teams whipped out all sorts of drama in November. Hopefully it carries over.
3. Because these fans care. East Carolina has one of the larger, more intense Internet fanbases in the mid-major universe (Bonesville is awesome, and you probably shouldn't get on Boneyard Banter's bad side), and UL-Lafayette fans have already bought over 20,000 tickets for this game. The Superdome is very, very big, and there will certainly be plenty of empty seats for this game, but this should still be one of the better atmospheres among the early bowls.
4. Because bonus football. Bonus football!
3 Key Factors
1. Can ECU's defense make any stops? We'll start with the most pertinent question. The ECU offense and ULL defense match up pretty evenly with each other, but on paper, the Cajuns' offense holds a significant advantage over the ECU defense. The Cajuns rank 40th in Off. F/+, the Pirates rank 101st in Def. F/+. The Cajuns are 29th in Rushing S&P+, the Pirates are 77th. The Cajuns are 36th in Passing S&P+, the Pirates are 89th. ECU has a pretty agressive secondary capable of making plays on the ball (the Pirates intercepted just nine passes but broke up 58), but it would appear the front seven might be a bit overmatched.
2. No, really, can the Pirates make any stops? The ECU secondary may consider itself the "best-kept secret in America right now," but ECU has given up a ton of big plays in the passing game this year. And again, ULL has a wealth of big-play threats in the passing game. ULL's offense is aggressive, diverse and scary for a defense that just hasn't stopped that many offenses.
3. ECU's OL vs. ULL's DL. One can assume that the Cajuns will score quite a bit. That puts the pressure on ECU's offense to respond. Neither ECU's offensive line nor ULL's defensive line grades out particularly well -- ECU ranks 95th in Adj. Line Yards, and ULL ranks 96th, for instance -- but ECU's quick passing game (and the low sack rates it tends to provide) has a bit of an advantage over ULL's pass rush (ECU ranks 59th in Adj. Sack Rate, and ULL ranks 87th). If the ECU line protects Carden and opens some holes for Tay Cooper, the Pirates could respond plenty of times in the scoring column. This offense has improved dramatically since September, though it still has less margin for error than Terrance Broadway and company.
F/+ Pick: ULL by 15.6.
Bill's Pick: ULL by 17. ECU's offense could have success, but ULL's offense should have success. Major difference.
1 Shutdown Fullback
Look through SB Nation's many excellent college football blogs to find your team's community.