LAFAYETTE — Saturday’s game at Appalachian State is a must-win for Louisiana-Lafayette’s bowl chances, but it’s also arguably the team’s toughest challenge to date.
The Mountaineers, at 8-2, have the best record in the Sun Belt. They are led by the league’s stingiest defense and an offense that’s just one-tenth of a point off leading the league in scoring, too.
They also play in Boone, North Carolina. That alone will make things difficult for the Cajuns.
The team is flying out of Lafayette on Friday and landing in Johnson City, Tennessee. From there, it’ll stay in one of the few places it could find within reasonable driving distance to the remote campus.
“We’ve got to fly, then we’ve got to get an hour-and-a-half bus ride to the hotel. Then the day of the game, we’ve got a 30-minute bus ride to the stadium,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “It is not obviously like you fly and land here and you’re two minutes from the hotel. It is a challenge to get there, and the weather’s going to be a challenge, too.
At least it appears the Cajuns lucked out in that one regard. The forecast for Saturday’s game calls for overcast skies and a high temperature in the mid-50s. That’s sweet music to the ears of a team comprised mostly of kids from the Gulf south.
With kickoff coming at 2 p.m. local time, the temperature shouldn’t be too far off from what the team is experiencing in Lafayette this week, where the temperature for Tuesday’s practice hovered around 60 degrees.
“Luckily we’ve got cold weather here this week,” Hudspeth said. “So we’re definitely going to get out there and hopefully try to get as used to the cold weather as we possibly can in a few days. I’m glad it’s gotten cold here this week for that reason.”
It’s not balmy, but it’s much more preferable to the game Hudspeth watched last November in Boone.
“They just got through playing Georgia State, and I think it was about this time of year, and it was snowing sideways,” Hudspeth said. “Georgia State was a passing team trying to throw it every down. The field was about 2 inches deep of snow.”
Playing Appalachian State is a difficult challenge enough. The Cajuns will be glad to do it without battling the elements as well.
The Cajuns’ alarming third-down struggles on both sides of the ball continued last week against New Mexico State, when the offense went just 5-for-15 and the defense yielded seven crucial conversions.
Three of New Mexico State’s four touchdowns came on third down. The Cajuns defense also gifted the Aggies a pair of third-down conversions on pass interference penalties that were not included in the official statistics, one of which was followed with a touchdown.
“Sometimes we just can’t get off the field on third downs,” junior linebacker Otha Peters said. “I feel like we’re one of the best teams on first and second (down), and then when third down comes, I don’t know what goes on, but we have to find a way to get off the field.”
Offensively, the Cajuns converted just 2 of their first 11 attempts on third down despite regularly facing reasonable odds at conversion. On more than half of those first 11 third-down opportunities, the Cajuns needed 6 or fewer yards, and they converted just one of those situations with a 3-yard run by Jalen Nixon on third-and-2.
Either way, Hudspeth hopes his team gets those types of opportunities again against Appalachian State.
“We’ve got to stay in third-and-short versus this team,” Hudspeth said. “(If) we get in a lot of third-and-longs against one of the best defenses in the conference, it’s going to be a long day.”
As of Tuesday night, Hudspeth wasn’t sure whether freshman kicker Stevie Artigue would be able to play after he missed the majority of last week’s loss to New Mexico State. But he was certain of one thing.
“I’m going to carry all three (kickers),” Hudspeth said. “All three will travel. Stevie didn’t practice (Tuesday); still real tight. I anticipate him being ready by Saturday.”
The other kickers are Carlos Alvarez, who handled kickoff duties Saturday, and Aaron Bird, who handled place-kicking duties in Artigue’s place. Bird made a pair of field goals and an extra point in his first career action.
On the season, Artigue has made 8 of 14 field goal attempts, and 26 of 28 extra points — one of which was blocked.