LAFAYETTE — There was a touch of a “what might’ve been” feeling in the atmosphere surrounding the Louisiana-Lafayette football team this week.
In their past two games, the Ragin’ Cajuns had the momentum and the lead as the game reached its closing act. In each of those games, the Cajuns were left to ponder just how they snared defeat from the jaws of victory.
This time around, the Cajuns (4-6, 3-3 Sun Belt) can’t afford to make mistakes.
They’re traveling to the eastern edge of the SBC footprint and into the heart of the Appalachian mountains to face a technically sound Appalachian State (8-2, 4-1) team that is ready to capitalize on whatever opportunity the Cajuns present.
With their postseason chances on life support, the Cajuns must play their best game of the year.
“We’re at a time in this season where we’re fight or flight now,” quarterback Brooks Haack said. “It’s either win or you’re done in December. That’s what none of us want. We’re all recruits now that have been part of bowl games. We haven’t been a part of not being in a bowl in December. ... We’ve got to win these next two games to be bowl-eligible.”
The Cajuns are on the brink of postseason elimination after coughing up late leads in back-to-back weeks against South Alabama and New Mexico State.
Both games featured fourth-quarter comebacks by the Cajuns; both games featured crucial fourth-quarterinterceptions; both games featured crucial go-ahead touchdowns in the final minutes by the opponents.
Instead of being 6-4 with a still-ticking heartbeat in the conference title race, the Cajuns are hoping to find a rapid turnaround in what is quickly becoming a lost season.
It’s somewhat of a reversal of last year’s matchup between these teams, when the Cajuns were chasing a perfect run through the SBC before the Mountaineers came to town and wrecked those plans by handing the Cajuns a 35-16 loss.
“They weren’t playing for the conference championship last year; we were,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “Now they’re still in it theoretically; if Arkansas State could lose a game, they would have a chance to still be in it. We’re not in it this year, so the roles are reversed.
“I was telling our team, if they could come and beat us at our place last year when we were really rolling, winning six in a row and coming off (three) straight bowl wins, I definitely know we have a football team that could go up there and compete well and have an opportunity to win if we could play very well.”
Playing very well likely will be a must against an Appalachian State team that has shown few scuffs in its armor this season.
The Mountaineers’ only losses have come against No. 1 Clemson and current SBC front-runner Arkansas State. In wins, they are averaging 43.4 points while yielding just 13.
Quarterback Taylor Lamb and running back Marcus Cox have paced a potent offense. Lamb leads the Sun Belt with 26 touchdown passes, 17 of which have come in six conference games.
Cox is 10 yards shy of eclipsing 1,000 on the year despite missing Appalachian State’s previous game against Idaho. The Cajuns are familiar with what he can do when he gets a full head of steam: He ran for 151 yards on 36 carries against them last year.
But it’s the Appalachian State defense that has driven its excellent season. The Mountaineers lead the Sun Belt in virtually every major statistical category, including the most important ones: scoring defense (18.5 points per game) and total defense (320.5 yards per game).
It arguably will be the Cajuns’ toughest game of the season — and, considering the stakes, the most important.
The math is easy for the Cajuns. Lose, and their season is essentially finished. Win, and they’ve still got a chance.
There’s no room for “what might’ve been” variables in an equation that simple.
“We don’t have no more time to slack around,” junior linebacker Otha Peters said. “All this frustration we’ve been having these last couple weeks, we’re going to take it out this Saturday.”