When UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State meet in football, more often than not, it’s significant in the Sun Belt Conference race.
Thursday’s game won’t be any different, though that might not have been expected a couple of weeks ago. The Ragin’ Cajuns (3-3, 2-1) will take a two-game winning streak into their second straight Thursday contest, this one against the offense-happy Red Wolves.
“In the past, it seems like there’s always something riding on it,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said about his team’s 6:30 p.m. ESPNU-televised game at A-State’s Centennial Stadium. “Our first year in 2011, we played for the conference championship at their place, and every year from then on it’s always seemed like one of the big games of the year.”
It was for A-State (3-2, 2-0) last year. In fact, both the circumstances and the result are still stuck firmly in the Red Wolves’ memory banks.
The Wolves came to Lafayette in late November last year on a nation-leading 15-game conference winning streak and coming off a 35-3 road thumping of then-No. 25-ranked Troy. All A-State needed to lock up the Sun Belt title were wins over the Cajuns and a struggling Texas State team.
UL-Lafayette had needs, too. The Cajuns were 4-6 and needed wins in their final two games to reach bowl eligibility, a tall task considering they were double-digit underdogs at home.
But the Cajuns escaped with a 24-19 win, thanks in great part to a call overturned by replay in the final seconds that wiped out an apparent fourth-down miracle score by the Wolves. Quarterback Justice Hansen’s desperation lateral flip bounced into offensive tackle Joseph Bacchus’ hands, and he lumbered in for a touchdown. But replay showed Hansen’s knee hitting the Cajun Field turf before his heave.
“That’s the kind of games you have in a rivalry like this,” said Hudspeth, whose team went on to reach six wins and played in the New Orleans Bowl for the fifth time in six seasons. “Both teams are usually pretty high up in the conference standings when we play, and it seems like it always comes down to the last few seconds or the last minutes.”
Hudspeth said part of that history comes from long-time affiliations. UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State have been paired up in four conferences, three of them in football, and have played each other in almost every season since 1966.
“These fans and these teams have been going against each other for a long time,” he said, “longer than the other teams in the conference, especially those that are new to the conference. They’ve been around the Sun Belt for a long time.”
Hudsepth said the Red Wolves’ offense would provide the Cajuns' biggest test since bounce-back wins over Idaho and Texas State. UL-Lafayette’s defense allowed only two touchdowns in those two games.
A-State ranks in the top 15 nationally in scoring at 39.8 points per game.
Twice already this year, Hansen has thrown for a school-record-tying five touchdowns in a game, and through five games the Wolves have 36 pass plays covering 15 or more yards. A-State has scored 43 or more points three times, including a 51-17 win over Coastal Carolina on Saturday.
“They’re going to throw it,” Hudspeth said. “One game this year they threw it 60 times (68 in an opening 43-36 loss at Nebraska). We’re going to have to do a great job, not only in the secondary but getting some pressure on that guy, because he can spin it and they’ve been real effective offensively. They’re a completely different type of challenge than we’ve faced.”
Red zone success
The Cajuns remain one of only five teams in the country to score on every trip inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line. After going 4 for 4 — three touchdowns and a field goal — in Thursday’s 24-7 win over Texas State, UL-Lafayette is 28 of 28 through six games.
Georgia (29), Florida (15), Florida International (15) and Wyoming (12) are the only other teams without a red zone failure.
Of that group, the Cajuns have by far the most touchdowns (25), with Georgia second at 20. In fact, UL-Lafayette has more red-zone touchdowns than anyone else in the top 10 in red-zone percentage, and only Oregon (30), Ohio State (29) and Ohio (29) have more red zone TDs than the Cajuns. Top-ranked Alabama also has 25 touchdowns in the red zone.