Louisiana 32, San Diego State 30

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA

December 17, 2011

The announcement that Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns' football fans had anticipated for, oh, say, 41 years or so, finally happened on November 21, 2011.

New Orleans Bowl representative Paul Valteau and head coach Mark Hudspeth held a length of rope.  Valteau told Hudspeth not to let go of the rope because at the end of the rope was Louisiana's invitation to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

Finally, the trip through the wilderness was over.

The only question to be answered (besides where can I get more tickets) was, who would be the opponent.  And, it was two more weeks before it was revealed San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference, would be the opponent.

Like the Cajuns, San Diego State had a record of 8-4 on the season, with losses to TCU, Michigan, Boise State and Wyoming.  The Aztecs had a powerful offense led by running back Ronnie Hillman and quarterback Ryan Lindley.  They had scored thirty or more points in seven of their twelve games.

It wasn't going to be easy.  But when had it ever been easy for the Cajuns' football program?

The Cajuns' 8-4 season was a surprise to the national media, one of which ranked the Cajuns dead last in America before the season started.  Even the coaches didn't think much of the Cajuns' chances, picking them eighth in the pre-season poll.

But this Cajuns team proved to be different.  They found a way to win close games.  They used a powerful offense and opportunistic defense to win six of their first seven games before finishing third in the Sun Belt with a 6-2 record.

With a bowl bid firmly in hand, Cajuns' fans responded by quickly selling their 18,500 ticket allotment.   They then began an assault on the Superdome for more tickets.  It had been 41 years, after all.

Thursday is when the fans started to show in full force.  By Friday the French Quarter was indeed painted red.  It was party time.

But on Saturday evening, there was this matter of a football game.  And, the record 42, 841 in attendance got a game they'll always remember.

We got there early, as always.  We had heard about the vantage point since the Superdome had been re-done and it was everything bad they said it was.  When they remodeled the Dome, they basically took the press section and made suites.  Conversely, they took the suites high stop the stadium and made that the press area.  Television, of course, got to keep the prime vantage point.

We got to watch ants run up and down the field.

Actually, it wasn't quite that bad.  But using the TV monitor as a helper was an absolute must.  Actually the biggest disappointment in the vantage point was, as you looked out, you could see the empty terrace section directly below the booth, but you couldn't see the plaza or loge level, which was a sea of red.  Not being able to see the fans took a little away from the experience.

The Cajuns defense helped themselves to Ronnie Hillman.  The SDSU running back was thwarted time and time again in the first drive.  Five carries, minus sixteen yards.  But Lindley's arm marched the Aztecs down the field.  With first and goal at the Cajuns' four, Hillman lost six yards on first down.  Lindley misfired on two straight passes and Abe Perez was called on to kick a 27 yard field goal and SDSU was on the board.  But it could have been worse.

Cajuns quarterback Blaine Gautier went right to work, hitting Ladarius Green for 44 yards to the Aztecs' 42 yard line.  On third down from the 39, Gautier found Javone Lawson for 37 yards down to the two yard line, but Harry Peoples was called for pass interference on a pick play and the Cajuns drive stalled.

Hillman had three carries for four yards on the next series, which resulted in a punt.  That gave the ball back to the Cajuns at their own 20.

The Cajuns moved out to the 30, but were faced with third and 17 from the 23 after a loss and a penalty.  But Gautier got Darryl Surgent down the sideline for a 39 yards to the SDSU 38.  A quarterback draw and an eleven yard pass to Ian Thompson moved the ball to the 18, where Gautier found Lawson for the touchdown to give the Cajuns a 6-3 lead.  Brett Baer's extra point, however, was blocked.

Blocked extra points sometimes come back to bite you.  Ask North Texas and ULM during the 2010 season.

The Cajuns held San Diego State to a three-and-out after the touchdown, despite an offsides call on the first play of the second quarter.  That forced a punt and Surgent took the 50-yard punt at his 13 yard line.

By the time he got to the forty, it was over.

Surgent's 87 yard return got the Cajuns a special teams touchdown and Baer's extra point made the score 13-3.  It was the first punt return for a touchdown since Nick Dugas did it at Cajun Field a decade earlier.

The Cajuns got a bit of a break on San Diego State's next series as the Aztecs moved from their own 23 into the Red Zone.  But on fourth and one, Adam Roberts fell down after a pass from Lindley.  The ball was spotted at the five for a first down, but the play was reviewed and the call was reversed, with the Cajuns taking over at the six yard line.

Two San Diego State drives got inside the Cajuns' ten yard line and SDSU had only three points to show for it.

The Cajuns got 25 yards on an Alonzo Harris run on first down but the drive stalled and the Cajuns went back to punt with the ball on their own 47.  But senior Brad McGuire took the short snap, rolled out and found "Bill" Bentley for 22 yards to the Aztecs' 42.  Gautier hit Lawson for 28 on the next play, giving the Cajuns a first and goal from the 3.

But UL, with a chance to take a commanding lead, came up empty.

Three plays gained just two yards and Cajuns' coach Mark Hudspeth eschewed the field goal and kept the offense on the field (a move he would be criticized for by some fans after the game ended.)  Gautier threw on fourth down but the pass was picked off at the four yard line.

The Cajuns defense held as the first half came to a close.

San Diego State had three points and in the locker room, they were lamenting that it wasn't fourteen.

The Cajuns had thirteen points, wishing it was 21.

Whoever lost the game would be looking back on lost opportunities.

The second half began with the Cajuns at their own 27.  It only took three plays to get into the end zone, with Gautier hitting Lawson for 52 yards and Green for 20 and the touchdown.  But Baer missed the extra point as it caromed off the upright, leaving the score 19-3.

At that point, I felt like a Cajuns' stop on defense would give them all the momentum in the world, and the way they were moving the football, could be just one possession from putting this one away.

I should have known San Diego State wasn't going to go quietly.

In fact, it took them just two plays to answer the UL touchdown as Lindley threw to Dylan Denso for 25 yards and Colin Lockett for 16.  The PAT cut the Cajuns' lead to 19-10.

Despite a 40 yard pass to Green on the next series, the Cajuns were unable to score.  Baer actually hit a field goal attempt from 46 yards but it was nullified by a penalty.  Baer then punted down to the SDSU one yard line and it looked as though the Cajuns were in good shape.

But the Aztecs drove the length of the field, aided by a pass interference call that nullified an interception by Lionel Stokes.  It took just seven plays for San Diego State to score and we had a brand new ball game at 19-17.

But the Cajuns came right back.

Louisiana put together a 14 play, 78 yard drive culminating in a touchdown pass from Gautier to Lawson to give the Cajuns a nine point lead, 26-17 with under 13 minutes to play.

San Diego State moved from their own 38 to the Cajuns 19, but Perez missed a field goal with 10:14 to play.

So I'm thinking, one good drive.

Get it in the end zone and put this puppy to bed.

But it wasn't to be.

San Diego State held the Cajuns to just three plays on their next possession and took over at their own 45 with 9:17 left.  Two plays later they were at the Cajuns 28 after passes from Lindley to Hillman and Denso.  Hillman then had his best series of the game, gaining 14 yards on two carries to move the football to the sixteen and Adam Muema wound up getting the touchdown from five yards out and just like that, it was a two point game again.

But now there was only 5:40 left.  A long drive or a quick score just might take care of business.

And, it looked like that was going to happen when Gautier hit Surgent, who made an incredible catch for 56 yards to the Aztecs' 20 yard line.  Louisiana lost seven on first down, but Gautier found Lawson for 24 yards down to the three yard line.  Aaron Spikes lost two on first down and San Diego State called time out with 2:21 left.  The Cajuns tried the fade route to Green twice, but came up empty.  Louisiana, who puts the game away with a touchdown, instead had to settle for a 22 yard Baer field goal and it was 29-24.

The Cajuns had another chance to end it on the ensuing possession, putting SDSU in a third and 15 situation from their own 26.  But Lindley hit Marcus Russell for 13 to bring up fourth and two.  Lindley threw incomplete on fourth down.  But before the Cajuns fans had a chance to celebrate, Stokes was called for interference, giving the Aztecs a first down at the 44.  That was the last time the Aztecs were faced with a third down the rest of the drive as Lindley methodically marched his team down the field.  On second and goal from the 12, Lindley found Lockett for the touchdown and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome got quiet.

Very quiet.

Lindley hit Lockett with a two point pass, but it was ruled an illegal touch since Lockett had earlier stepped out of bounds.  That meant a field goal could win it for the Cajuns.

But Louisiana had no time outs and there were only 35 seconds remaining.

San Diego State 30, Louisiana 29.  Damned missed extra points.

There were fans who left at that time.

You won't get many of them to admit it, however.

As for me, I remembered the game against ULM just six weeks earlier, where it looked as though the Cajuns' were cooked, only to see them score two touchdowns in a span of just over two minutes to get a comeback win.  I simply told our listening audience where the ball was (the UL 18) , how much time was left (29 seconds) and how many yards the Cajuns would need to give Baer any kind of chance. (about 50).

Gautier hit Lawson on a slant on first down to move the ball to the 31.  He then found Lawson again, this time for 26 yards to the Aztecs 43.  Gautier then spiked the ball to stop the clock.

Seven seconds left.

The Cajuns needed at least another ten yards.

Gautier hit Harry Peoples on the side line and the Cajuns' received stepped out of bounds.

But he only got five yards.

Hudspeth sent Baer into the game.

I remember saying I didn't know if Baer had enough leg to get it there.

The teams lined up.

And a penalty flag came down.  The San Diego State players clapped their hands, sure it was a false start on the Cajuns.

But it wasn't.

San Diego State had used a cadence to draw the Cajuns offside.  The call was "illegal stemming," something I'd not heard of.  I was told later technically, it was a delay of game.

I didn't care.  I just knew the Cajuns had their five yards.

Hudspeth had chosen to punt earlier rather than try a 51 yarder.  This one would be from 50.  And, I felt Baer had enough leg for that kick.  But he'd have to kick it low and make sure it didn't get blocked.

For this kick, I used the monitor, which had the angle from the far end zone.

When it left his foot, I knew it would get there.  It faded toward the left upright, but snuggled inside and the Cajuns were the champions of the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

In retrospect, the kick would have gotten there from 55.  I don't know if it would have faded outside the goal post, but that was a moot point.

Baer ran toward the other end zone with his teammates in pursuit.  That was surreal to watch from way up at the top of the 'Dome.

Gautier was named the Most Outstanding Player after throwing for 470 yards, just three off the school record, and three touchdowns.  Lawson had 193 yards receiving on nine catches and Green added 121 more.  Surgent nearly made it three receivers with 100 yards, finishing with 93.

Hillman, meanwhile, was held to 55 yards on 24 carries.  He had one run over ten yards in the game, and he only got that because the officials missed a pretty obvious holding call.

It turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the entire bowl season.  The Cajuns may have made their fans wait a long time for that bowl appearance, but they made sure the fans would never forget it.

Nine wins. An average of more than 29,000 fans at Cajun Field.  Unbeaten at home.  A new bowl attendance record.

And, a rope the Cajuns held onto.

All season long.