NEW ORLEANS — The two-hour bus trip was identical, the game site for Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl is a familiar venue, and even Louisiana-Lafayette’s headquarters hotel is the same as the Ragin’ Cajuns utilized last year.
But don’t think the Cajun squad has any thoughts of their second straight bowl trip being old hat.
“Any time you can go to a bowl game in New Orleans, it’s special,” said senior linebacker and all-Sun Belt Conference pick Emeka Onyenekwu. “Especially coming to New Orleans, it’s still exciting because we’ll get to enjoy ourselves a little.”
The Cajuns will have some time for enjoyment over the next two days before getting down to the business of facing East Carolina (8-4) at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And it won’t be just the team that enjoys the Crescent City.
“This is a great bowl for our fans,” said coach Mark Hudspeth, who arrived with his team Tuesday. “They aren’t that far behind us to get this party started.”
ULL Athletic Director Scott Farmer didn’t have a complete ticket count after official sales through the school’s ticket office ended at 6 p.m. Monday. He did say that sales through their office were “21-something-thousand,” a significant improvement over last year’s 18,862 total sale through the ULL outlet.
Last year’s game drew a bowl record 42,841 fans for the Cajuns’ last-second 32-30 win over San Diego State, and bowl executive director Billy Ferrante said that the ticket distribution for Saturday’s game was already more than 46,000 as of Monday.
“That’s a testament to what we’ve done locally to help grow the game,” Ferrante said. “Our ticket base, group sales, youth programs, they’re all almost doubled from last year.
“Since Lafayette has name recognition and so many supporters here, we wanted to take advantage of that and do some things to get on top of that.”
A traditional New Orleans brass band and Mardi Gras bead throws met the Cajuns when they got off the three chartered buses.
“It was that same great feeling, seeing all that,” said Onyenekwu, a native of New Orleans who prepped at McKinley High after his family left the city following Hurricane Katrina. “I’ve got a lot of family and friends already here, so that’s going to be even more motivation for me.”
The city welcomed both competing squads on Tuesday. The Pirates held their first workout in New Orleans Tuesday afternoon.
The Cajuns used Tuesday as their day off from practice, after working out Sunday evening and Monday morning. ULL will hold its first practice in New Orleans at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Tad Gormley Stadium and will work out in the Superdome at 10:30 a.m. Thursday — part of the staff’s plan to get the team acclimated to the morning kickoff on Saturday.
“We’ve had a great two weeks of preparation,” said Hudspeth, whose 8-4 team has won four of its last five games with only a last-play loss at fourth-ranked Florida marring that streak. “Now our kids are anxious to get here and have a little fun. We’ve been going at it hard since Aug. 1, and we’ll get back to practice tomorrow.”
The team and traveling party had its player party Tuesday evening at New Orleans’ iconic Rock ‘N’ Bowl, and the squad will have other activities away from football later in the week. The 18 seniors on the squad will visit Ochsner Hospital’s children’s ward and the entire squad will tour the Aquarium of the Americas on Thursday. The bowl luncheon is at noon Friday, with Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon the guest speaker.
“I think as a team, we’re anxious to get going down here,” said sophomore quarterback Terrance Broadway, who has a chance to finish off school-record seasons in passing efficiency and completion percentage. “We’re going to have some fun and enjoy ourselves, but when the time comes we’re going to get back to work.”