La.-Monroe eyes 2-1 start, validation
Warhawks show two OT games -- and a win -- vs. SEC no fluke
This was no aberration, they knew, no fluke.
The win was a moment more than two years in the making, but, a week later, Louisiana-Monroe had only four quarters to prove the victory was not an anomaly.
Two weeks ago, the Warhawks conquered then-No. 8 Razorbacks after junior quarterback Kolton Browning rolled left, but sprinted right to the sliver of daylight he saw in the dark Arkansas night. His dive over the pylon earned the long-downtrodden Sun Belt program a 34-31 overtime victory against an SEC power.
No team from the conference had ever defeated a top-10 team. Shock, jubilation and pride could’ve swallowed the Warhawks whole and no one would’ve blamed them – except for themselves.
They wouldn’t let that ephemeral joy, that fleeting respect, fade away.
“You can catch somebody at a bad time, you can play above yourself, have a lot of breaks go your way and then [it means nothing] if you don’t come back and validate it the next week,” ULM third-year head coach Todd Berry said.
Seven days later, ULM traveled to Auburn and came within a grazed field-goal attempt of pushing the Tigers to a second overtime. The 31-28 loss devastated the Warhawks, who ventured to Jordan-Hare Stadium fully expecting to emerge 2-0 rather than valiant losers. Though Auburn relied on a trick play and a desperation last-second heave to score two momentum-turning second-quarter touchdowns, ULM wasn’t content with the fact that it erased a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime.
“There are no moral victories, nothing like that,” Browning said. “We lost.”
Nevertheless, they’d proven that win against Arkansas had meaning, that it would be no piece of trivia lost to sports history … that it was no fluke.
Tonight, ULM can prove more. The program, which hasn’t posted a winning season in its 18 years in the FBS, is hosting a nationally televised game in prime-time against Baylor. ULM, which is home to fewer than 8,000 undergraduates, is awash in pride – only a few general admission tickets to its 30,400-seat stadium linger unsold. The team, which has among the smallest football budgets in FBS and can’t afford team plane rides or a ninth coach – standard among most schools – is aching to make a statement in front of home fans, potential recruits and the nation.
ULM accepted consecutive games against Arkansas, Auburn and Baylor to fund the football program, but another strong showing will ensure that they garner something more valuable – national respect and recognition.
“There are a lot of things that this can do for a university and a program, and hopefully it comes to fruition,” Berry said.
When Browning first glanced at this season’s schedule and saw road games against two SEC powers followed by a home opener against a Big 12 team that won 10 games last year, a jolt passed through him. It wasn’t fear or intimidation, but excitement. He and his teammates – 15 upperclassmen are starting against Baylor – are used to taking on juggernauts. Many of them have started, or gotten significant playing time, since they were freshmen. In 2010 and 2011, they squared off against LSU, TCU, Arkansas, Iowa, Florida State and Auburn. Though the Warhawks lost each game, those young players grew accustomed to the big stage.
|Sept. 6||vs. No. 8 Arkansas||W, 34-31 (OT)|
|Sept. 15||at Auburn||L, 31-28 (OT)|
|Sept. 21||Baylor||8 p.m. ET|
|Sept. 29||at Tulane||3:30 p.m. ET|
|Oct. 6||at Middle Tenn.||3:30 p.m. ET|
|Oct. 13||Florida Atlantic||8 p.m. ET|
|Oct. 20||at Western Ky.||4 p.m. ET|
|Oct. 27||South Alabama||7 p.m. ET|
|Nov. 3||UL-Lafayette||4 p.m. ET|
|Nov. 8||at Arkansas State||7 p.m. ET|
|Nov. 17||North Texas||4 p.m. ET|
|Nov. 24||at FIU||TBA|
This year, nothing, and everything, have changed for the Warhawks. Practice routines and schedules are the same. Coaching philosophy and the spread offensive attack are the same. The same names are penciled into Berry’s weekly depth charts. But those players have matured through the losing seasons and the tough losses against major programs. This group of Warhawks, once intimidated by playing against the nation’s top teams, now relishes the opportunity.
“We had some big eyes a couple of years ago,” Berry said. “But we have an experienced team. They’re used to going into these environments. They’re used to these situations. I don’t think we’re too worried anymore about the venues that we’re playing in, or the helmets that we’re playing [against].”
When ULM returned home after long bus rides from Arkansas and Auburn earlier this month, the team was greeted by an unfamiliar sight – hundreds of supporters were waiting for them, cheering their arrival after both victory and close defeat.
“This has become kind of rock-star stuff around here,” Berry said.
That buzz has lingered on campus, Browning said, but he maintains that he and his teammates are resolute in not letting the fanfare prove distracting. But the team is excited to play in front of what’s sure to be the most frenzied home crowd they’ve seen. Berry said he can’t remember a game in his three-season tenure that’s been more anticipated by the school and community. He worries that players will put too much pressure on themselves to put on a show for the fans that have been there for them at two in the morning this season, win or lose, after those long bus rides.
Baylor brings the nation’s second-longest winning streak – eight games – and ninth-ranked passing attack to Monroe on Friday. It’s the third time in 14 days that ULM will dig in against a team with a bigger name and a bigger budget. It’s the third chance in 14 days that the Warhawks will have to prove to recruits, to their budding fanbase, to their conference foes that success is no accident, no fluke.
“You keep playing hard and good things happen,” Berry said. “I don’t think they feel like anybody can break them.”