LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Bathed in green and red light from the fireworks going off in the cool mountain air Saturday night, a couple Ragin’ Cajuns seniors soaked it all in.
It’s hard to blame them for enjoying the moment. They’d played arguably their most complete game of the year in Louisiana-Lafayette’s 44-16 beatdown of the Aggies (2-8, 1-5), giving the Cajuns (6-3, 5-0) five straight wins and making them bowl-eligible for the fourth straight year.
“Me and (Christian) Ringo and Trae Johnson stayed on the field a little bit longer tonight, just to watch the fireworks,” said senior quarterback Terrance Broadway, who threw three touchdowns for the first time since the season opener. “We knew that we were running out of Saturdays. We’ve got three guaranteed Saturdays left. We’re just trying to enjoy our time together as a team.”
Perhaps the rest of the team had the same feeling. The Cajuns played inspired football from the opening kick to the final whistle.
The Cajuns remembered last season’s game, when they allowed the Aggies to jump to a 28-7 lead in the second quarter at Cajun Field. They weren’t about to come out flat this time.
The Aggies, who opted to receive the ball after winning the coin toss, put together a 17-play, 70-yard drive to open the game, converting a couple of third downs and a fourth down to draw first blood.
But the Cajuns stiffened near the goal line to force a field goal, then took the ball and showed the Aggies how it’s done.
Using a mix of pass and run plays against a defense committed to stopping the Cajuns potent ground game, they turned in their longest drive of the season in a 15-play, 75 yarder that took 7:08 off the clock.
The Cajuns converted on all three third downs on the drive, including a couple of darts from Broadway into the hands of receivers on the third-and-medium plays that have at times troubled the Cajuns this season.
Broadway capped the marathon drive with a 5-yard lob to 6-foot-5 receiver Jared Johnson in the end zone. It was the first of two touchdown catches for the young receiver, both on similar plays.
“We always want to score on our first drive,” Broadway said.
That set the tone for a Cajuns squad that was not looking to re-enact last season’s game against New Mexico State. The Cajuns were going to start strong and finish strong Saturday.
“That was big, to be able to go down and score and answer their first drive,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “For our guys to come back and answer that drive said a lot about our guys. Our kids came to play tonight.”
The Cajuns dominated the game offensively, compiling three separate 70-plus-yard touchdown drives and holding the ball for nearly 37 minutes.
All that without senior running back Alonzo Harris, who was ruled out in a game-time decision. With no Harris, the Cajuns leaned heavily on McGuire, who was his usual explosive self while carrying the ball a career-high 26 times.
“I thought Elijah did a great job,” Hudspeth said. “He ran strong. He took a lot of hits between the tackles and showed great durability.”
Even though the Aggies were committed to stopping McGuire, the Cajuns kept them honest with the passing game. The Cajuns didn’t put up huge numbers there, but were effective when they needed to be.
“Their plan against us was to put everybody in the box and make us throw it, ” Hudspeth said. “It was great to see that we could be effective enough to do that, because they had everybody up on the line of scrimmage.”
But it wasn’t just an offensive effort. The Cajuns doubled their previous season total in interceptions by snagging three off the arm of quarterback Tyler Rogers, and they also recovered a fumble to finish the game plus-four in turnover margin.
With the win all but locked up, the Cajuns were able to rest some of their starters later in the game and get some younger players in on both offense and defense.
“The thing I’m excited about is that we’re playing so many young kids right now, too,” Hudspeth said. “We’re developing players, we’re playing a lot of people and that’s only going to help us as we move forward.”
After not going to a bowl game in the 40 seasons before Hudspeth’s arrival, the Cajuns are likely on the way to their fourth straight.
“It says a lot to me about the stability of our program right now, the health of our program,” Hudspeth said.