Familiarity can breed contempt, and UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State have been football rivals for several decades.
But that’s not the biggest reason the Ragin’ Cajuns’ second straight midweek game looms huge.
If the Cajuns can continue their winning streak in Sun Belt Conference play with an upset win over the Red Wolves, they’ll take a giant step toward postseason possibilities and keep themselves vibrant in the Sun Belt title chase.
UL-Lafayette (3-3, 2-1) meets Arkansas State (3-2, 2-0) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in a game that will appear live on ESPNU.
A loss would all but eliminate the Cajuns from a title shot and make the quest for bowl eligibility a more rugged journey.
“It seems like there’s always something riding on this one,” said coach Mark Hudspeth, who is 3-3 all-time against the Wolves in a series that’s been close since the teams started playing in 1953. “It always seems like one of the big games of the year for us, in the fact that both teams are usually pretty high in the conference standings.”
A-State won a share of the Sun Belt title last year and has won 18 of its last 19 conference games. That one loss, though, is an itch the Wolves have been scratching since last Nov. 26, when the Cajuns pulled off a 24-19 upset at Cajun Field.
UL-Lafayette was dominated statistically in that game but got an interception and touchdown from nose tackle Taboris Lee, two big offensive plays for touchdowns and a late replay overturn that nullified an apparent ASU winning score in the final seconds.
That win, and a runaway victory at UL-Monroe the following weekend, put UL-Lafayette back into the New Orleans Bowl for the fifth time in six years. The loss cost the Red Wolves an outright conference title, but A-State still won eight of nine to finish 2016 and humbled current top-25 member Central Florida 31-13 in the Cure Bowl in Orlando.
“Maybe healthy hatred, whatever you want to call it,” said A-State coach Blake Anderson, who was a part of the Cajuns staff for one season as offensive coordinator in 2007. “A competitive rivalry is the best way to explain it. When your names are at the top of the list every year, and that game’s going to matter, I think you just have a healthy respect for each other.”
The respect for the rivalry is much of the reason the Cajuns and the Red Wolves are part of the Sun Belt’s ESPN package for the fifth time since that deal began in 2012.
Being a part of that package, and since a minimum of five Sun Belt games have to be played mid-week by contract with ESPN, has led to some strange breaks in scheduling for both teams. The Cajuns’ two wins in their current streak came five days apart in a 21-16 road win at Idaho and last Thursday’s 24-7 win over Texas State. In fact, including Thursday’s game, UL-Lafayette has played 12 midweek games in the past six seasons.
It gets more challenging after Thursday, albeit in a different way. UL-Lafayette doesn’t play for 16 days following the Arkansas State game, returning to action Nov. 4 at South Alabama.
“We played on Thursday, so we told our guys there’s no time to catch our breath,” Hudspeth said, “but after that one we’ll have 2½ weeks. That’s a long break and they’ll get some quality time off during that break. But until then it’s DefCon 1 alert until Thursday.”
Short week or not, the game falls at a crossroads for the visitors. After Thursday, and other than the season finale at Appalachian State, the Cajuns’ three remaining Sun Belt opponents — South Alabama, New Mexico State and Georgia Southern — are a combined 5-13 this year.
Junior Andre Nunez gets his second start for the Cajuns after throwing for 732 yards and four scores in UL-Lafayette’s last 10 quarters. The transfer was 17-of-27 for 232 yards and a score in his first college start against Texas State after throwing for 500 yards in backup roles the previous two games.
A Cajuns defense that allowed a national-worst 215 points through four games gave up only one touchdown each to Idaho and Texas State, but that unit will be tested by a Red Wolves offense that is scoring a fraction short of 40 points per game.
“They’re going to air the ball out,” Hudspeth said, “so we’re going to have to do a great job, not only in the secondary but getting some pressure on that guy (Hansen) because he can spin it and they’ve been really effective offensively.”