Louisiana-Lafayette’s football team has been in this situation before.
The Ragin’ Cajuns faced tall odds last year to reach bowl eligibility, needing wins in their final two games. That time, the Cajuns took a last-minute upset win over Arkansas State and then rolled past UL-Monroe on this weekend a year ago, earning their fifth trip to the New Orleans Bowl in six seasons.
UL-Lafayette faces a similar hill to climb Saturday, needing a victory in its last regular-season game to reach the required six wins and likely claim a postseason slot. This time, though, the hill is more like a mountain: Appalachian State’s Mountaineers have history on their side and something to play for when they host the Cajuns at 1:30 p.m. in Boone, North Carolina, in the regular-season finale.
“Obviously there’s a lot riding on this game for both teams,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “Our guys definitely know what’s at stake.”
App State has never lost to the Cajuns (5-6, 4-3) since joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2014, and none of the games have been truly competitive. The Mountaineers surprised UL-Lafayette 35-16 at Cajun Field that first year, took a 28-7 victory in Boone in 2015 and shut out their hosts 24-0 last year.
That’s an 87-23 margin in three games, and this time Appalachian State has something else to play for besides continuing that domination. A surprising 52-45 shootout loss at UL-Monroe four weeks ago wiped out a chance at an outright Sun Belt title for a team heavily favored to win that crown, but the Mountaineers (7-4, 6-1) can still take a share of the conference title with a Saturday win.
“It’s championship week for us,” said App State coach Scott Satterfield. “We know what’s at stake here. But I’m proud of the team and the way we prepared the last three weeks.”
Since that loss to ULM, the Mountaineers have looked more like the team that many thought would be in the conversation for the Group of Five conferences’ New Year’s Six bowl spot. App State rolled past Georgia Southern 27-6 two weeks before the Eagles' 34-24 win over the Cajuns, and the Mountaineers popped co-league leader Georgia State 31-10 last week.
Georgia State had not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season before Mountaineers back Jalin Moore rushed for 239 yards in leading his team to a season-high 323 rush yards. Moore has run for 802 yards this year, and senior quarterback Taylor Lamb has 23 touchdown passes with only six interceptions this season in a 2,364-yard passing season.
Those numbers are not good news for a Cajuns defense that watched Georgia Southern’s option attack go for 389 ground yards last week in a loss that put UL-Lafayette in win-or-go-home peril this weekend.
“With the option, you have to do your assignment every play. We weren’t doing that, and it cost us,” said senior safety Tracy Walker, who had a game-high 14 tackles. “We’ve had a lack of focus at times, something we’re still doing at the end of the season, and that’s something we have to fix.”
Hudspeth said his team’s offensive struggles had a lot to do with those distressing defensive numbers. The Cajuns didn’t get a first down in the first period and only two in the first half in falling behind 24-7 three minutes into the second half.
“Once they scored the first two times, I thought we settled down a little,” Hudspeth said, “but we weren’t able to take advantage of anything offensively.”
Offense has been lacking for UL-Lafayette in each of the previous three meetings with Appalachian State. The Cajuns never got into the red zone in last year’s shutout loss and had seven punts, two missed field goals and three turnovers on downs. In the Cajuns’ only trip to Boone two seasons ago, they had fewer than 170 offensive yards before a drive in the final minutes snapped a shutout.
“They’ve been very good against us defensively,” Hudspeth said. “We’ve not moved the ball well at all. What they do with their odd front creates a lot of problems, but mostly they’ve got a lot of quickness and some good players up front.”
That late scoring drive at Kidd-Brewer Stadium two years ago was led by none other than then-freshman Jordan Davis, who hit all seven of his passes for 60 yards in the final six minutes and ran the final 20 yards for a score in the Cajuns’ final drive.
Whether Davis or true freshman Levi Lewis will start Saturday might remain a secret until kickoff. Lewis took off his redshirt and started two games before suffering an ankle injury at Ole Miss, and Davis came back in a relief role to throw for 225 yards and two scores in the final three quarters after Lewis was ineffective early.
“The other night, Jordan came off the bench like a sixth man and gave us a spark,” Hudspeth said. “He had the hot hand and did a nice job. It’s not an easy decision, to say the least. Would we love to have a Taylor Lamb-type guy where he’s the only guy and we don’t have that decision every week, yeah. But we’ve had guys banged up all year.”
Elsewhere in the Sun Belt, Troy visits Arkansas State in a battle of one-loss teams. With a win, Appalachian State will tie the Troy-ASU winner for the league title. Those three and Georgia State are the Sun Belt’s four bowl-eligible teams for the league’s five bowl tie-ins. Both UL-Lafayette and New Mexico State (which hosts South Alabama) can earn bowl eligibility with a Saturday win.