LAFAYETTE — The game was on the line with a little less than two minutes to go against New Mexico State, and Louisiana-Lafayette had a chance to pull out a dramatic fourth-quarter win.
Instead, it ended with a dud.
New Mexico State linebacker Rodney Butler made a leaping interception of a Brooks Haack pass to end the Cajuns’ hopes for a late rally and possibly their chances for a bowl game in a 37-34 loss Saturday at Cajun Field.
“They know right now we’re not playing as well as we can play,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “That’s pretty obvious. It don’t take Captain Obvious to tell us that. We’ve just got to improve, and we’ve got to improve in all facets of the game. Put ourselves in position to win a game, and I thought we’d done that late.”
Indeed the Cajuns did. Trailing after three quarters, they scored the first 14 points of the fourth to storm back. With 6:27 to go, the Cajuns had a seven-point lead and all the momentum.
But for the second straight week, the Cajuns couldn’t hold a lead.
New Mexico State broke a 20-20 tie late in the third quarter when quarterback Andrew Allen, who attended a memorial for his father Saturday morning and met the team in Lafayette, hit Teldrick Morgan for a 23-yard touchdown down the middle of the field.
The touchdown was set up by Allen’s legs on the play before, when the Aggies passed on a potential go-ahead field goal and went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Cajuns’ 26-yard line. Allen picked up just enough on a 3-yard run to extend the drive.
But the game turned in the Cajuns’ favor to start the fourth quarter. Just like last Thursday against South Alabama, the Cajuns turned to the passing game to open their offense up.
The Cajuns let Haack fire away on their first drive of the fourth quarter, and he always eventually worked his way back to senior receiver Jamal Robinson.
“I was just telling him how the corner was playing on the routes,” Robinson said. “I was telling him that the corner was bailing, and he said, ‘I’m going to get it to you quick.’ We did what we had to do: throw and catch.”
The two connected five times for 43 yards on the drive, and when they had sufficiently loosened up the defense through the air, the Cajuns turned to running back Elijah McGuire to deliver an uppercut to the Aggies’ jaw.
McGuire looked like he would be stopped for a minimal gain on a run play to the left, but he planted his foot and zoomed through a cutback lane almost untouched for a 27-yard touchdown, his second TD of the night, to tie the score at 27.
McGuire finished with 159 yards on 18 carries and two touchdowns. Robinson caught a career-high 12 passes for 183 yards.
The Cajuns defense responded with a three-and-out to hand the ball back to the offense with solid field position at their own 32. Once again, Haack turned to his trusted senior receiver.
He hit him for 9 yards on a third-and-8 crossing route, made possible by an excellent blitz pickup by the Cajuns line. He looked his way again the next time the Cajuns faced a third down, and Robinson did something special.
The Cajuns motioned Torrey Pierce out of the backfield to the far left side of the field on third-and-nine, then threw a bubble screen to Robinson on the far right side. Robinson did the rest, out-running the Aggies for a 31-yard go-ahead score with 6:27 remaining.
“Everybody did their job; they executed on that play and got me wide open,” Robinson said. “I just had to finish it.”
But the Aggies would have their response. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after Robinson’s touchdown forced the Cajuns to kick the ensuing kickoff into the wind from 15 yards farther back than usual.
That resulted in a drive that started near midfield. The Aggies went 53 yards in eight plays to tie the score, converting another fourth down on the way when Allen threw a desperation pass under pressure to running back Larry Rose III. Allen followed that with a 23-yard touchdown on third-and-7 to Gregory Hogan, his fourth touchdown pass of the night.
When the Cajuns had a turn to respond, they couldn’t. They went three-and-out and had to punt from their 29, and their freshman punter who has been outstanding all season picked an inopportune time for a bad punt.
Steven Coutts’ punt went just 5 yards, giving the Aggies the ball at the 34-yard line with 3:00 remaining in a tie game.
“That was just a mis-hit,” Hudspeth said before adding that he’d never question Coutts’ performance because of the effort he puts into preparation.
Gifted with great field position, the Aggies drove down inside the Cajuns 5, but some questionable play-calling gave the Cajuns a chance. The Aggies called a pair of pass plays near the goal line instead of calling run plays that would’ve forced the Cajuns to use their timeouts. They eventually kicked the go-ahead field goal but left the Cajuns nearly 90 seconds to work with.
But Haack was intercepted on the second play of the next drive, allowing New Mexico State to run the clock out.
The Cajuns have to win next week at Appalachian State to keep their hopes of going to the postseason alive. In a season where not much has gone the way the Cajuns wanted, the team is still clinging to its last shreds of hope.
“We’ve got kids that care, and when you have that, you have a chance,” Hudspeth said. “They continue to work hard. Are we playing great? No, that’s obvious; I don’t have to tell you that. But the kids are playing hard, and they want to win.”