Mark Hudspeth would love to know which of his Louisiana-Lafayette defenses is going to show up for homecoming on Saturday: the one that’s been solid and effective against the passing game in three recent Sun Belt Conference contests, or the one that was ripped up by Arkansas State and Ole Miss over the past three weeks.
The answer to that question will determine if the Ragin’ Cajuns will extend their season past the first weekend of December and into the bowl season, because New Mexico State comes to Cajun Field on Saturday with by far the Sun Belt’s most explosive passing game.
The Aggies (4-5, 2-3) and quarterback Tyler Rogers rank fourth nationally in passing, throwing for 360 yards per game, while the Cajuns (4-5, 3-2) are coming off an outing when Ole Miss threw for 321 yards — in the first half — on the way to a 50-22 victory.
That was in direct contrast to road wins at Idaho and South Alabama and a home victory over Texas State in the past 37 days, when UL-Lafayette limited three decent passing teams to only 37 combined points.
“We’ve sort of been either hot or cold,” said Hudspeth, whose team hosts the Aggies at 4 p.m. Saturday in its first Saturday home game in eight full weeks. “We’ve been really good at times, and sometimes we haven’t been very good.”
The Cajuns need to be good for the homecoming fans Saturday, or their bowl chances will take a huge hit. UL-Lafayette needs to win two of its remaining three games to reach bowl eligibility, and even if they do that, they may be in a cluster of Sun Belt teams fighting for one remaining league tie-in.
One of those teams they could be jostling with for a bowl invitation is New Mexico State, which is winding down its tenure in the Sun Belt this season. The Aggies, whose football-only membership in the league was not renewed and ends this fall, also need two wins from their three remaining games, and a head-up win could make a difference if both teams wind up 6-6.
The Aggies haven’t gotten a break in this year’s Sun Belt schedule, either. NMSU has lost to three of the league’s one-loss teams — Troy, Appalachian State and Arkansas State — after taking non-conference wins over its two most bitter rivals in New Mexico and UTEP.
“I’m not surprised where we are right now,” Aggies coach Doug Martin said. “Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get a couple of those games that we were close in. I felt that we were good enough, but things didn’t go our way.”
NMSU entered the season with the nation’s longest streak of bowl-less seasons. It’s been 57 years since the Aggies played in back-to-back Sun Bowls in 1959 and 1960, but NMSU controls its destiny and has two winnable games remaining with Idaho and South Alabama at home.
They’re also the closest geographical fit for the Sun Belt’s tie-in with the Arizona Bowl, so the Aggies have plenty to play for Saturday and will be hoping to unleash a three-headed offensive monster. In addition to Rogers, who threw for a career-high 474 yards in a 45-27 win at Texas State in his last outing, running back Larry Rose III ranks fourth in Sun Belt history in career rushing (4,246 yards) and has a chance to catch league record holder and former Cajuns great Tyrell Fenroy (4,646).
Fellow senior Jaleel Scott has eight touchdown catches and averaged 87.3 yards per game and 15.1 yards per catch.
“They have firepower wherever you look,” Hudspeth said. “Doug has done a great job there, especially what he has done in the last couple of years offensively. They’ve developed Tyler Rogers into probably the premier quarterback in this league.
“They’re 4-5, and if you look at their schedule, they very easily could be 8-1 or 7-2. They have been highly competitive in their other games.”
UL-Lafayette will be looking for some offensive firepower of its own, and those chances improved when true freshman quarterback Levi Lewis’ ankle injury was found to be not as bad as feared. The former Scotlandville standout, who stripped his redshirt and has started the past two games, was hurt in the second half against Ole Miss but was cleared to return to practice Tuesday.
Junior Jordan Davis, who started the season’s first five games, took most of the snaps with the No. 1 offense during the week. Hudspeth told the Quarterback Club booster group Thursday that Davis would likely be the starter.
“If Levi’s healthy, he’ll start,” Hudspeth said. “If he’s not 100 percent, Jordan will start. We’re fortunate that we have both of them.”
Lewis threw for two scores and rushed for 129 yards in his debut at South Alabama, leading the Cajuns to a 19-14 win that kept their faint hopes alive for a share of the Sun Belt title. The UL-Lafayette rushing attack also gets a boost with the return of fellow true freshman Trey Ragas, who ranks third in the Sun Belt with 78.3 rush yards per game and seven scores.
Ragas was one of four starters suspended for last Saturday’s Ole Miss game, stemming back from a dormitory incident in the spring that involved 13 Cajun players. All 13 have now served their one-game suspensions heading into the season’s final three weeks.
UL-Lafayette holds a 6-5 lead in the series, but NMSU won last year’s game 37-31 in double overtime in Las Cruces. The Aggies won the last Cajun Field meeting 37-34 in 2015. Even though this will be the last Sun Belt meeting and NMSU will be an FBS independent starting next fall, the teams are scheduled for two more games, in Lafayette next season and in Las Cruces in 2020.
Saturday’s homecoming activities will include halftime induction ceremonies into the UL Athletics Hall of Fame for five former athletes — basketball’s Dion Brown, baseball’s Jonathan Lucroy, softball’s Lacey Bertucci Sharp, track and field’s JoJo Harris and the late Kim Perrot from women’s basketball. Three former athletic administrators — Sherry LeBas, Danny Cottonham and John Porche — will be honored with Lifetime Achievement awards.