Personnes d’Acadiana: The Next Step
Last year, Cajuns quarterback Blaine Gautier took ULL football where it’s never gone before. Now he wants to go further.
Blaine Gautier bets you’ll never guess when last season’s unforgettable University of Louisiana at Lafayette football carpet ride went from feel-good story to hokey Disney movie – in a good way, of course.
At the end of the eight-win regular season? Logical choice. After the Ragin’ Cajuns flirted with a postseason berth more than once during the Rickey Bustle era, expectations were rightly tempered entering 2011. ULL’s new coach, Mark Hudspeth, was a relative unknown. The starting quarterback position was unknown and unsettled – a tossup between Gautier and incumbent Chris Masson. “Experts” pegged ULL to finish in eighth place in a nine-team league. Three months, almost 3,000 yards passing, 23 touchdowns and a handful of dramatic victories later, Gautier and the Cajuns emerged as a Sun Belt heavyweight. But, no, that wasn’t the moment.
OK, how about the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl? Talk about an emotional bungee cord. The Cajuns surrendered the lead, 30-29, to San Diego State with 35 seconds left. ULL had no timeouts and a ton of field to cover. Gautier completed three passes, marching the Cajuns into field goal range. A couple of chewed fingernails later, placekicker Brett Baer sneaked a 50-yard game-winner inside the left upright, spilling the ULL sideline onto the field.
“We definitely knew we were going to win,” Gautier reminisces. “We didn’t know how we were going to win. We didn’t know it would be in such dramatic form, for sure.”
Still, no, that’s not it, either. Although he was completely jazzed, the joy of the moment had yet to smack Gautier across the helmet. You have to go later, like around 3 a.m., away from the glare of TV cameras or the glow of the Superdome.
“My 90-year-old grandmother [Audrey Gautier] told me all these years, ‘You got to make it to the Dome because I can’t take that outside weather,’” Gautier says. “So when I got us there, she came. There were some tears, all joyful. And she brought it. She stayed out with us until the morning. No quit in her. That was a special night. That’s when it was, ‘We did this!’”
Drop the curtain. Roll the credits. The perfect end.
There’s just one issue – Gautier is a senior this year. So instead of closing the book, Gautier and the rest of the Cajuns have simply turned the page. Entering 2012, ULL returned 13 starters (including Gautier, the reigning Louisiana Sportswriters Association Offensive Player of the Year) and received two first-place votes in the preseason Sun Belt coaches’ poll.
“We’re here now,” Gautier says. “This school has definitely gotten more attention from fans and media around the nation. It’s a great feeling to be a Cajun.
“You can’t be content with what happened last season. It was a dream season; don’t get me wrong. But this year, the expectations are so high what we’re shooting for is a Sun Belt championship and being bowl champions. We can be the ones to start the tradition now. We won’t forget what happened last year, but we’ll continue to get better.”
Despite directing Lutcher High School to a state championship as a senior, Gautier was largely ignored by major-conference colleges, receiving scholarship offers to ULL, Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana. Gautier redshirted as a true freshman and then saw sparse playing time in 2009 and 2010 – mostly in Bustle’s gimmicky wildcat formations.
In 2011, Gautier eventually wrestled away the starter’s job from Masson in Week 4 against Florida International, a game in which he posted 307 yards of total offense and three passing touchdowns in a surprising 36-31 road win. From there, Gautier’s comfort with his newfound starting status was visible the next week against Florida Atlantic, calmly marching the Cajuns 65 yards in 10 plays for a chip shot game-winning field goal as time expired. Then on Nov. 5, Gautier’s knack for fourth-quarter heroics showed up again – this time erasing Louisiana-Monroe’s 11-point cushion in the game’s final few minutes thanks to back-to-back touchdown drives.
“It’s a calm feeling, really,” Gautier says of quarterbacking with the game on the line, “because you’re going out there and this is nothing new – this is what you did in practice. Plus, I got 10 other guys who got my back. The coaches prepared you. Your guys are prepared. This is calm. This is relaxing.”
Gautier pauses before concluding: “If you keep telling yourself that, you’ll believe it.”
Oozing with confidence by the end of the season, Gautier actually told ULL assistant coach Jay Johnson, “All right; I got this,” in those supposed-to-be-anxious moments on the sideline prior to the final drive in the New Orleans Bowl. In front of 90-year-old Audrey and 42,840 others, Gautier backed up that claim – orchestrating arguably the greatest moment in Cajuns football history. He left the Superdome with several New Orleans Bowl records (total yards and passing yards), the game’s MVP award and the unwavering respect of those in his huddle.
“I think they’ve rallied around me more,” Gautier says of his teammates. “Once the ‘who’s the starter?’ factor got out of the way, then yeah, it’s been a whole new dynamic. ‘You’re our starting quarterback. You’re our leader. So we just want you to lead.’ Hearing that, that’s huge. Once you keep hearing that, and you know it’s sincere, the only thing left to do is go win and compete – go win and compete with those guys you’ve grown up around.”
For all his success and growth, Gautier still has much to prove on this level and beyond. Even though Gautier led the Sun Belt Conference in touchdowns and passer rating, league coaches voted Ryan Aplin of Arkansas State first-team All-Conference quarterback in the preseason. And should Gautier duplicate or exceed his 2011 production, he’s come to grips with the fact that his lack of size (6 feet, 212 pounds) will make some pro scouts look elsewhere for quarterback help.
“I’m not going to lie – I read the newspaper,” Gautier says. “I check the Internet. I know what the perceptions of me as a quarterback are, and I know what people say about us as a team. But I just try and shake it off – bad and good. I’m going to continue to be me. I’m going to continue to grow, whether it’s good talk or bad talk. If they say I’m good, well, then I’m trying to get great. It’s about going further.”