ECU Pirates invade Crescent City, prep for New Orleans Bowl

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana-Lafayette is back where Ragin’ Cajuns’ bowl mania all started.

And this time, the school is bringing even more fans. Caravan style.

“It’s going to be a sea of red,” coach Mark Hudspeth said Tuesday afternoon, predicting the crowd for Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. ULL is playing here for the second straight season.

As Hudspeth boasted about the more than 21,000 tickets already purchased by ULL fans, a jazz band blew uptempo tunes outside its downtown hotel.

“We’re not done yet,” he said.

Meanwhile, East Carolina (8-4) spent the afternoon practicing at the Saints’ training facility in Metairie, hoping this weekend’s game offers redemption. While ULL enjoyed a spectacular ending to the 2011 edition of this bowl, East Carolina watched last season’s college football postseason as spectators, a motivating factor heading into Saturday’s game.

While coach Ruffin McNeil’s team is focused on earning East Carolina’s first bowl victory since 2007, he also wants them to enjoy their time with teammates and their families in New Orleans.

“This is a great city,” McNeil said. “Great people. I’ve had a chance to recruit this area and I want them to be smart, don’t do anything to hurt the team or embarrass the team, and they will. But also embrace this. This is a reward for them, for what they’ve accomplished.”

The Pirates, behind a high-tempo offense, finished second in the East Division of Conference USA. ULL (8-4) finished second in the Sun Belt Conference, a product of its own record-setting offense.

Which offense will have its way in what could be a high-scoring bowl game?

If East Carolina receiver Justin Hardy knows, he’s keeping the answer to himself.

“We just came in, worried about us. If we focus on us, everything will take care of itself,” said Hardy, who enters Saturday’s game with 83 catches for 1,046 yards and 10 touchdowns — all team highs.

East Carolina practiced Tuesday without offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who did not make the trip to be with his wife, Caitlin, for the birth of their first child.

“I told Lincoln he’s got one rule: His job now is to be a dad and a husband,” McNeil said. “I love football, I love this game, I love this university. But his family means more to me than anything.

“If he’s able to make it (to New Orleans), we’ll welcome him back; we hope he does ... but at the same time, his family comes first.”

Last season, ULL beat San Diego State 32-30 thanks to Brett Baer’s 50-yard field goal as time expired. ULL was playing in its first postseason contest since the 1970 Grantland Rice Bowl, and the Cajuns earned their first bowl win as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Now, Hudspeth wants more. And he expects fans to show up.

“I think it goes to show you we really have something special happening in Lafayette that people now are just starting to take notice and say, ‘Wow,’ ” Hudspeth said.