LAS CRUCES, N.M. — For the final four weeks of its season, Louisiana-Lafayette’s most significant opponent may be ... itself.
The Ragin’ Cajuns completed the Sun Belt Conference’s version of an October gauntlet last weekend in its 19-9 homecoming victory over South Alabama. That ended a three-game streak against teams who are all still two full games over .500 in league play.
Starting Saturday, the Cajuns now face four November games against teams with a combined 9-25 overall record, and who as a group do not have a win over any of the top five in this week’s conference standings.
New Mexico State (2-7, 1-4) is riding a seven-game losing streak, although only one of those games — a 63-7 loss at LSU in late September — was out of hand early. Still, it would be natural for UL-Lafayette (5-3, 4-0) to look ahead to what could happen with a November sweep, and that’s what Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth wants to avoid beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday at NMSU’s Aggie Memorial Stadium.
“Early this season, we got away from doing what got us to this point in the first place,” Hudspeth said of the Cajuns’ 1-3 start. “Now they’re hitting on all cylinders and gaining momentum, and we’re not going to pull over and check the oil.”
“Each week, we have to have our nose down and grinding,” said junior defensive tackle Chris Prater, who made his first start last Saturday in the defense-dominated win. “We’ve got to take each opponent and give them the respect they deserve.”
Over the past three games, those opponents have been Texas State, Arkansas State and South Alabama, who are each 5-3 overall and like the Cajuns one win short of bowl eligibility. Other than their three losses to UL-Lafayette, those teams are a combined 10-1 in Sun Belt play.
From here on, the Cajuns face the Aggies, UL-Monroe (3-5, 2-2), Appalachian State (3-5, 2-2) and Troy (1-8, 1-4). Those teams’ victories have come over opponents holding a combined 9-52 record against FBS competition.
UL-Lafayette will be favored in each of those four games, even though three are on the road (the Cajuns are 17-point favorites Saturday). If they can sweep those four, they’ll finish the season with nine regular-season wins, and even with the success of the past three years that hasn’t happened since Hudspeth took over the program before the 2011 season.
“Each week you try to find something to challenge your guys with,” Hudspeth said. “Most times, the game itself is challenging enough.”
Hudspeth doesn’t have to look far into the past to come up with this week’s reminder. New Mexico State was not a Sun Belt member last year but came to Lafayette to rekindle a series between the schools, and that rekindling nearly turned into a firestorm for the hosts.
The Cajuns had won five in a row and the Aggies were 1-6 with no wins over FBS teams, but six minutes into the second quarter NMSU held a 28-7 lead and UL-Lafayette’s homecoming crowd was shell-shocked.
The hosts eventually stiffened defensively and the offense caught fire in a 49-35 victory that gave them their bowl-eligible sixth win, and the Cajuns squad learned a lesson while keeping its win streak intact.
“I remember us having to come out and play hard,” said wide receiver Devin Scott, who had a season-long 45-yard catch against USA one week ago. “We’re over that, but we know we have to take advantage of our opportunities.”
“Everyone who was involved remembers,” Prater said, “and we’re going to keep that in mind going to their house.”
On Saturday, they’ll throw a four-game win streak at the Aggies, and again a win would make them eligible for a fourth straight bowl appearance.
And like last year, UL-Lafayette will face a team with a prolific offense and with a defense that has struggled mightily.
Few 2-7 teams nationally can boast a 640-yard offensive day, but that’s what NMSU did last week in its 37-29 home loss to Texas State. Quarterback Tyler Rogers completed 38-of-52 passes for a career-high 404 yards and three scores, receiver Jerrel Brown had seven catches for 139 yards and running back Larry Rose III went for 181 yards and a score.
Rogers is third in the Sun Belt in total offense (2,280 yards), Rose is fourth in rushing (711 yards) and H-back Teldrick Morgan has more receptions (63) than any receiver in the league.
“They’re dangerous,” Hudspeth said of the Aggies offense. “They get into a lot of multiple formations, a lot of empty sets and they’ve got a running back that’s very effective. Last year they jumped on us right away, so I promise you they have our respect.”
Defense is another matter. The Aggies are last nationally in rush defense by a wide margin and have allowed at least 310 rush yards in every one of the seven recent losses. That’s not good news against a Cajuns rush attack that has averaged 301 ground yards over the last three weeks against the rest of the Sun Belt’s upper division.
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris have teamed for 1,257 yards and 18 scores after both were on the preseason All-Sun Belt team, and McGuire has 381 rushing yards in the last two games. Harris, who was sidelined with injury nicks for most of the USA game, had 107 yards and four scores the previous week against Arkansas State.
“Most teams are putting a lot of guys in the box to try to stop those guys,” Scott said. “That opens up things in the passing game, so we want to be ready when our opportunities come.”
The bigger test may be for UL-Lafayette’s defense. NMSU has posted 536 or more yards in each of its past three games, and the Cajuns have held only two opponents under 300 yards this year. But that unit also shut out USA in the final 38 minutes last Saturday and held the Jaguars under 150 yards in the second half.
“We got back more to our blue-collar mindset,” Prater said. “We’re focusing just on the first snap of the next game, and then the next snap and then the next.”