It would take a significant upset, but UL-Lafayette’s football team can take a major step toward a postseason bowl game Saturday.
If the Ragin’ Cajuns win two of their last four games, they’ll be bowl eligible, and a landmark win over Ole Miss would be attractive to any of the Sun Belt Conference’s five bowl partners.
Regardless of what happens, UL-Lafayette’s postseason hopes are infinitely better than the Rebels’ zero chances. Ole Miss will end its season Nov. 23 at rival Mississippi State, thanks to a self-imposed bowl ban stemming from lingering NCAA investigations.
That doesn’t mean the task is any easier, especially considering the Cajuns (4-4, 3-2 Sun Belt) are 0-40 all-time against the Southeastern Conference. In fact, the lack of postseason opportunities might make the Rebels — who are three-touchdown favorites — even more motivated.
That’s what Ole Miss interim coach Matt Luke said Monday.
“The biggest thing is we have 17 days left guaranteed together,” said Luke, who took over when Rebels coach Hugh Freeze stepped down in July amid allegations of improper contacts with an escort service. “We’ve got to make the best out of each one of those 17 days.”
That includes Saturday’s 11 a.m. contest at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, where Ole Miss (4-5, 2-4 SEC) hosts the Cajuns for the fifth time in the series history in a venue not far from Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth’s hometown of Louisville, Mississippi.
“That’s a team and a program I obviously have a lot of respect for,” Hudspeth said. “I know a lot of their players, recruited a lot of their players, and growing up in Mississippi, I know a lot about their program.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Matt Luke. He’s a former player at Ole Miss and has coached there for a while, and whenever you have a head coach that played and coached at a school, you know he’s totally invested in that program and doing everything he can to make sure they remain at the level they’re at.”
The Rebels have known since before the season that there would be no championships or bowl games waiting. But they have been in all of their SEC contests with the exception of a 66-3 thrashing at Alabama, and they won at Kentucky 37-34 in the final seconds last Saturday.
Despite the lingering NCAA shadows — Ole Miss had a hearing with the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Sept. 11 — and the loss of standout quarterback Shea Patterson to a torn knee ligament during the 40-24 loss to LSU three weeks ago, the Rebels haven’t thrown in the towel. Part of that is because of Luke, the former Rebels team captain who was elevated from offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator after Freeze’s abrupt departure.
“With this young team only having 12 seniors, we’ve talked about how we’re learning to get better,” Like said. “We’re learning how to win. You just have to keep putting yourselves in position to win games.”
Junior Jordan Ta’amu has stepped in for Patterson and thrown for 750 yards in the Rebels’ past two games. He also threw for four touchdowns Saturday on 31-of-40 passing, including a 7-yard toss to freshman wide receiver D. K. Metcalf with five seconds left for the winning margin.
Hudspeth said the Rebels haven’t missed a beat offensively with the quarterback change.
“They’re just plug and play,” Hudspeth said. “They have a lot of talent at the quarterback position, including one from here in New Iberia (former Catholic High standout Jason Pellerin), but that’s everywhere on offense. They’re one of the most explosive offenses in the country.”
UL-Lafayette showed a hint of offensive explosiveness itself last Saturday, in the first half of what became a hugely important 19-14 win at South Alabama. Sparked by true freshman quarterback Levi Lewis making his collegiate debut, the Cajuns scored on four straight possessions in the first half and hung on for a victory that got them back to .500 and made the postseason a possibility once again.
Lewis ran for 129 yards and threw a pair of touchdown passes, one a 54-yarder to Michael Jacquet and the other a 13-yard score to fellow true freshman Chase Rogers. Another true freshman, running back Trey Ragas, rushed for 84 yards to give him seven 60-plus performances in eight career games. The Cajuns started freshmen and sophomores at all of the skill positions against USA in winning for the first time in Mobile.
“We’re really a young football team,” Hudspeth said, “and we’re starting to grow up a little bit, and that’s probably why you’re starting to see us play a little better. Hopefully we can continue that upswing, and we’ll need to do that with the opponents we have on the schedule the remainder of the season.”
The Cajuns have never won in four tries in Oxford, falling 21-10 in the first meeting in 1986 and losing 56-15 in the most recent meeting three seasons ago. UL-Lafayette is still seeking its first win over an SEC school dating back to 1935, including a 45-21 loss at Texas A&M in September when the Cajuns led 21-20 at halftime.