Under normal circumstances, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s football team might be in for a letdown.
The Cajuns remained perfect in Sun Belt Conference play with their 19-9 victory over South Alabama on Saturday, giving them three straight double-digit wins over all of the league’s plus-.500 bowl-eligible teams. Now they’ll face a New Mexico State team that’s lost seven straight and ranks as the nation’s worst in a couple of defensive categories.
But nobody’s taking the Aggies for granted this time, not after last year when a one-win NMSU team threw a major scare into a UL-Lafayette squad that had won five in a row and on its way to a Sun Belt title.
“That was lessons learned,” Hudspeth said of last November’s 49-35 win in which the Cajuns rallied from a 28-7 deficit. “You better come ready to play. We were sleepwalking early, and looked up and we were down 21 points. We were not ready to play in the first half last year.”
“Everyone who was involved remembers,” junior defensive tackle Chris Prater said. “(The Aggies) played hard, and we had to come back. We got on our game more in the second half, but we’re going to keep that in mind going to their house. We have to keep our nose down and keep grinding.”
The Aggies scored on their first four drives, covering 75, 89 85 and 67 yards, to take that early lead last year. Alonzo Harris scored five times in the game’s final 35 minutes and UL-Lafayette had 34 unanswered points to rally back, and now the Cajuns will travel west to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to face an Aggie team that has gone from 2-0 to 2-7.
“You look at their record, but look at the games they’ve played,” Hudspeth said. “Their record could easily be much different. They’ve been in a lot of tough battles.”
Tough would be a good word to describe NMSU’s feelings after its Saturday 37-29 home loss to Texas State. The Aggies rolled up 639 offensive yards, setting season highs for both team rushing and passing. Quarterback Tyler Rogers was 36-for-52 for 404 yards and three scores. And running back Larry Rose III went for 181 yards as NMSU outgained the visiting Bobcats by more than 200 yards.
As well as the Aggies can move the ball, though, their defense allows even more. Area fans saw that first-hand in NMSU’s 63-7 loss to LSU in Tiger Stadium in late September.
The Aggies are last nationally in rush defense (326.2 yards per game) and in sacks with only three all season and only one in the seven-game loss streak.
It hasn’t helped that defense that the Aggies offense has turned the ball over a nation-leading 26 times.
The Aggies appear weakest where the Cajuns are strongest, with UL-Lafayette averaging 223 rush yards per game and Harris and McGuire combining for 1,234 yards and 18 touchdowns in eight games. Harris did not play in Saturday’s second half with minor injuries, with McGuire taking up the slack and rushing for 116 yards and catching nine passes for 90 yards.
One game earlier, the sophomore from Houma had a 265-yard rushing game against Arkansas State, and he and Harris both scored four times in that 55-40 win. UL-Lafayette ran for 419 yards in that game against Arkansas State, then-unbeaten in the Sun Belt.
“He’s on fire now and playing at a high level,” Hudspeth said of McGuire. “He’s staying healthy, and that’s a big plus. We want to run the football and establish the run, but having only one back there for South Alabama made it more difficult. We’re way more effective when both of those guys are fresh.”
UL-Lafayette held South Alabama to 150 offensive yards in Saturday’s second half and shut the Jaguars out over the game’s final 38 minutes. The visitors were 4-of-16 on third and fourth downs.
“We got back more to our blue-collar mindset, our state of mind,” Prater said. “We have guys that work hard every week and can absorb what the coaches want, and then go out and implement their plans and execute them at a high effort in practice. That’s showing in our games.”
The Cajuns are also doing it with a deeper unit: 23 players saw action on defense Saturday, and 19 had at least one tackle in a game that was a one-score contest until the final five minutes.
“We talked as a staff that we played more guys in one game than we’ve played in the last four years,” Hudspeth said. “A lot of guys contributed in a big way, more than at any time. We have some quality depth that in the past couple of years we may not have had.”
McGuire had nine catches for 90 yards against South Alabama and has the team’s two top reception games this year, including a 10-catch game against Boise State. But many were surprised when quarterback Terrance Broadway lofted a fade route in the direction of the 5-foot-10 McGuire out of the backfield on a second-quarter, third-down play from the Jaguars’ 10. The pass was batted away, and the Cajuns settled for the second of Hunter Stover’s four field goals.
“We’re probably 10-for-10 on that play in practice,” Hudspeth said. “Terrance would be the first to tell you he should have thrown it a little more outside. But Elijah has a knack for going and getting that. Moving him around allows us to design plays. ... He’s the kind of player that you can create plays for.”
McGuire caught a wheel-route pass for 24 yards to set up that field goal, but Hudspeth was more excited on two plays in UL-Lafayette’s final clock-killing drive when McGuire deliberately stayed inbounds on a pair of 8-yard outside gains.
“To have the foresight to slide and keep the clock moving,” he said, “just to understand the game that well when you’re tired and you’ve run 10 plays in a row, that says something for him.”