JONESBORO, Ark. — A furious Louisiana-Lafayette rally fell short in the fourth quarter of a 37-27 loss, but that wasn’t necessarily surprising – the Cajuns needed a minor miracle after spotting Arkansas State 27 points early.
“Just not good enough in the first half,” said coach Mark Hudspeth.
In a game that looked destined to be a blowout, the Cajuns (2-4, 1-1) outscored the Red Wolves (4-3, 3-0) 20-3 over the final 30 minutes and change to make it interesting late.
Quarterback Jalen Nixon became the first Cajuns quarterback to both throw (253) and run (201) for 200 yards since Brian Mitchell in 1987. Elijah McGuire, held largely in check in the ground game, erupted for nearly 100 receiving yards in the second half.
Those two, combined with a defense that suddenly figured out Arkansas State’s ground game, almost did enough to get the Cajuns back in the game. Almost.
“We caught fire on both sides of the ball, won the second half and climbed right back into the game,” Hudspeth said. “These kids have a lot of fight in them, that’s one thing we’ve got.
Nixon threw a pair of touchdown passes in the second half – one to McGuire on a pretty 20-yard strike – and also accounted for a 75-yard scoring run in the first half immediately after throwing an interception that was returned for a score.
“It was very big to see what Jalen was doing,” said McGuire, who finished with a career high 134 receiving yards on 10 catches. “He’s a competitor, he doesn’t like to lose.”
McGuire was there whenever Nixon needed to be bailed out, finally given the space to make the types of plays that burned Arkansas State last season at Cajun Field.
But the story of this game is more about what those players couldn’t do early.
The Cajuns just couldn’t overcome the huge deficit Arkansas State built up in the first 26 minutes of the game.
“We’re not starting fast enough in the first half, we ain’t been a first half team this year,” Hudspeth said.
Arkansas State jumped out to a shocking 27-0 lead largely on the strength of its run game, which the Cajuns were powerless to stop in the opening half.
The Red Wolves ran for 211 yards in the first half, many of which came after poor first contact by Cajuns defenders well behind the original line of scrimmage.
“Really quick, fast football players on the other team,” was Hudspeth’s explanation for a number of missed tackles in the first half. “They’re hard to tackle.”
Running back Michael Gordon did most of the damage on the Red Wolves first series of the game, punctuating a seven-play 76-yard drive with a seven-yard touchdown. Sixty five of those 76 yards came on the ground.
A 21-yard Johnston White touchdown run made it 13-0 at the end of the first quarter and capped a seven-play, 57-yard drive that came entirely on the ground.
The Red Wolves were so confident that they to the ground game on 3rd and 6 from the Cajuns eight yard line, when they ran an option instead of trying to pick up the distance through the air. It worked, and it kept a drive alive that resulted in another touchdown.
About the only pass off substance Arkansas State completed came on a 46-yard rainbow strike from Freddie Knighten to Chris Murray, who beat T.J. Worthy’s coverage for a touchdown to make it 34-7.
While Arkansas State was motoring up and down the field at will in the first half, the Cajuns offense was stuck in neutral.
After their first drive of the game stalled in Arkansas State territory, the Cajuns offense went into hibernation for most of the rest of the half.
With Arkansas State focusing on taking McGuire out of the game, the rest of the Cajuns couldn’t find a way to make something happen.
At one point, Nixon fired 11 straight incompletions. On the Cajuns’ eight drives after their opening drive, they managed just three first downs while gaining a grand total of 100 yards – 75 of which came on a Nixon touchdown run to give them their first score of the game.
Nixon also had a pair of costly interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown – Arkansas State’s nation-leading fourth of the year – and another that killed a second-half drive that would’ve likely resulted in a touchdown.
Nixon said the passing game was mis-firing on just about every level, from receivers running the wrong routes to himself not being calm in the pocket.
“But I blame it mostly on myself, just being more patient with the ball and taking care of the ball,” Nixon said. “That’s the thing that I have to pride on as the quarterback and the leader of the offense.”
At 2-4, the Cajuns will have to win the remainder of their games to match the 9-4 record posted in their first four seasons under Hudspeth.
“We’re going to rebound, we’re going to rally, we’re going to get back,” Hudspeth said. “There’s still a lot of football left to be played and we’re still going to try to contend for this conference championship.”