Record crowd expected when Southern returns to Cajun Field

LAFAYETTE — Even with all of the buildup and the record crowd that turned out for Louisiana-Lafayette’s 2009 season opener, the first meeting with Southern’s Jaguars had simple roots.

In fact, it started with a “cold call” from then-Ragin’ Cajuns Athletic Director David Walker to Jaguar AD (and Lafayette native) Greg LaFleur.

“We talked about how we’d never played,” Walker said. “We’re 50 miles away. It was time.”

Just over a year later, the teams drew a Cajun Field record 41,357 for the Sept. 5 opener, a total that topped even the memorable 1996 Texas A&M game when 38,783 watched the Cajuns pull off a 29-22 upset.

The score wasn’t as close five years ago when the Cajuns scored 35 unanswered points on the way to a 42-19 win over the Jaguars, but the atmosphere remains memorable. That atmosphere, and the crowd total, could be topped Saturday when the teams open their 2014 seasons at 6 p.m. at Cajun Field.

“I think they’re probably going to break that record because of the extra seats,” the now-retired Walker said. “We could have probably sold three or four thousand more tickets (in 2009), but our people were getting nervous about where we were going to put all those people.”

Current UL-Lafayette Athletic Director Scott Farmer figures to have a similar situation this week. The recent addition of permanent seating in Cajun Field’s south end zone, and the companion restroom, concession and fan amenity areas, brought the stadium’s capacity to 36,900. The north end zone of the natural bowl remains as grass and will be available top to bottom for a crowd that’s expected to surpass 40,000.

“We’ve had over 100 requests for RV spots just for this week,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said Monday. “Not a lot of places have that kind of atmosphere. If they set a record back in 2009, if we don’t blow that out of the water, I’ll be shocked.”

Farmer had joined the UL-Lafayette staff as associate athletic director in late 2007.

“Here you had two programs, both with large and passionate fan bases, and they’d never played,” Farmer said. “It just made too much sense.”

Walker said the schools had tried to work out scheduling prior to the 2009 meeting but could never make a date work until he and LaFleur talked about opening that season.

“They had an opening, we had an opening, and we were able to work out the money,” Walker said.

“They wanted a little bit more than we were paying I-AA teams at the time, but we thought it was going to be well worth it and it was.”

Southern had only played one other in-state Division I-A (now FBS) program at the time, having faced Tulane in New Orleans in 2001 and ’02. More significantly, the Cajuns had only played one previous regular-season game against a historically black college or university — a hastily scheduled 2006 home opener against North Carolina A&T.

“We had a late cancellation that year,” Walker said, “and it was spring and we had to get something on the schedule. (North Carolina A&T) and Maine were the only schools in the country that had an open date, and they agreed to come.”

The 2009 game with the Jaguars was much more of an event given the proximity of the schools. Many fans of both teams were still trying to get inside Cajun Field while the visiting Jaguars got out to a shocking 12-7 lead late in the first quarter thanks to two big pass plays by SU quarterback Bryant Lee and a UL-Lafayette fumble.

From there, though, the hosts scored five straight touchdowns, taking a 28-12 halftime lead behind quarterback Chris Masson’s 10-for-11, 178-yard passing performance in the first half. Southern missed on two scoring chances inside the Cajuns 10 in the second half, and UL-Lafayette eventually built a 42-12 lead before the Jaguars scored in the final 90 seconds.

Masson threw for 283 yards and had two passes touchdown while Lee had 254 throwing yards and Jaguars receiver Juamorris Stewart had 179 yards on 11 catches.

UL officials said Monday that Lafayette’s fire marshal has capped Cajun Field’s capacity at approximately 42,500. Walker said that five years ago, he didn’t have a firm maximum number in place.

“I never asked,” he said. “I just know that we sold out all the standing room we had. It was an unbelievable crowd.”