New Mexico State Loss Big Blow To Cajuns Bowl Hopes
That big “pfffftttttt” sound emanating from Cajun Field last Saturday night was UL’s postseason balloon, moments after New Mexico State stuck it with a fourth-quarter pin.
When the visiting and two-touchdown-underdog Aggies put up a touchdown and a field goal in the final four minutes, and an until-then potent Ragin’ Cajun offense chose the worst time all evening to fizzle, UL’s postseason hopes were deflated in what coach Mark Hudspeth called the team’s most disappointing moment of the season.
“They’ve taken this loss as hard as any loss I’ve ever seen a team take one,” Hudspeth said only minutes after the 37-34 setback left the Cajuns with only a flicker of hope for a fifth straight bowl appearance. “They’re probably soul-searching a little bit right now.”
In the past four years during Thanksgiving week, the Cajuns were searching for extra tickets and UL fans were searching for hotel rooms in the Big Easy. Since 2011, each of those seasons had ended in the two-hour trip down Interstate 10 and an eventual win in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.
Fans were happy, especially those who spent all or part of the previous 40 years waiting for a first-ever Division I bowl trip. The players and coaches were happy, playing a bowl game close to home before Christmas where friends and family members could easily attend. UL and New Orleans Bowl officials may have been the happiest of all, with four crowds that set standards that will likely never be matched.
Now, the only folks that are happy are NMSU’s Aggies, who had no bowl aspirations with a 2-7 record but who still played with enough passion to take a first-ever win over the Cajuns. New Mexico State opened its season with seven straight losses but has since won three straight, topping the two-win seasons of the last two years.
The Cajuns’ record is better at 4-6, but that is no consolation considering where Saturday’s loss leaves this year’s squad.
It is still mathematically possible for UL to get to 6-6, a record that for the first time in history will be good enough to assure any Sun Belt Conference team of a bowl trip. But getting to that mark will require winning at league preseason favorite Appalachian State this Saturday along with a Dec. 5 home win over improving Troy.
App State may be the Sun Belt’s best team, a loss to Arkansas State two weeks ago notwithstanding, and the Mountaineers play well in a Boone, N.C., home that isn’t the easiest place to travel. App State, which convincingly knocked the Cajuns out of the Sun Belt title chase late last season, will also have something to play for since a share of the league title could still be up for grabs.
Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? Not if the Cajuns play defensively like they did Saturday against the Aggies and their average-at-best quarterback play. App State’s Taylor Lamb is the league’s most efficient QB, and is likely salivating if he’s seen video of the Cajuns’ Saturday loss.
The NMSU loss was confounding. A Cajun offense that had struggled for weeks found itself in a big way, with tailback Elijah McGuire (159 yards, two TD), quarterback Brooks Haack (24-of-37, a career-high 283 yards, two TD) and receiver Jamal Robinson (career-high 12 catches, 183 yards, one TD) all having highlight-reel games.
But a Cajun defense that had been solid recently gave up big plays on many Aggie drives. And freshman punter Steven Coutts, who had been a stabilizing force and a weapon in virtually every game this season, had an uncharacteristic poor outing including a five-yard punt that set up NMSU’s winning field goal.
That’s pretty much the Cajun M.O. this season. When UL beaks out its potency on offense, the defense struggles. When the defense is getting stops – or at least when drives are halted when really needed – the offense can’t find anything approaching consistency.
That rarely happened in the previous four years, and that’s why the Cajuns went 9-4 each of those seasons and were in the hunt for a Sun Belt title every one of those years. Now, they need a minor miracle just to avoid a losing season.
“Are we paying great?,” Hudspeth said. “No. That’s pretty obvious. I don’t have to tell you that. But these kids are playing hard. It’s important to them. We’re just not playing very well, we’re not coaching very well. We’re just not a great team right now.”
That’s why they’ve opened as a three-touchdown underdog for this Saturday, the most in a Sun Belt game in at least eight years and likely the most for the Cajuns since the league began playing football. Even the most fervent UL fans aren’t expecting success, even though they’re holding out hope ... and hoping against hope to still be making hotel reservations in late December.