LAFAYETTE — Over the past two seasons, New Mexico State provided just what Louisiana-Lafayette needed to keep bowl-bound seasons rolling.
Two years ago, the Ragin’ Cajuns won a 49-35 shootout at Cajun Field for the sixth victory of what became an eight-game streak. Last season, UL-Lafayette’s 44-16 runaway win in Las Cruces was the fifth of a six-game surge.
Both years, the Cajuns got their sixth win of the season against NMSU, the landmark for bowl eligibility, and went on to grab their third and fourth straight New Orleans Bowl victories.
If the Cajuns (4-5, 3-2 Sun Belt) want to continue that bowl streak, Saturday’s 4 p.m. contest against the Aggies at Cajun Field falls into the “must-win” category. But this one figures not to be as easy as last year’s game, when UL-Lafayette outscored its hosts 44-6 in one 36-minute stretch.
This time, it’s the Aggies who come in surprisingly hot, winning against Idaho 55-48 and at Texas State 31-21 after seven losses to start the season. NMSU has had two weeks to rest up, heal and prepare for a Cajuns squad that lost a key Sun Belt game at South Alabama last Thursday.
“We had a great week off — very beneficial to us,” said NMSU coach Doug Martin, whose team has won six times in 33 games in the past three seasons. “Injuries, obviously, that’s going to help get some guys back, but we also took a couple of days really off because going into this game, we need to be the fastest, freshest team we can be.”
UL-Lafayette would like the same after showing the effects of a five-day turnaround in its 32-25 loss at USA. The Cajuns offense, behind a patchwork line, managed only 43 rushing yards against the Jaguars while USA rolled up 495 offensive yards — the most the Cajuns have allowed this season.
“You never blame fatigue. We just missed tackles,” said Cajuns linebacker Dominique Tovell, who had nine stops against the Jaguars. “Either you want to or you don’t want to on tackling. (USA) got a lot of extra yards. If we’d tackled, they’d had maybe half that number.”
Had that happened, UL-Lafayette likely would be riding a three-game winning streak, would still be in the chase for the Sun Belt title and would have some extra breathing room in its bowl-eligibility chase. The loss at USA got rid of those first two, and the Cajuns must win two of their remaining three games to become bowl-eligible. UL-Lafayette goes to Appalachian State (8-2, 5-1) next Saturday and ends the regular season Dec. 5 at home against Troy (3-7, 2-4).
“It hurt us,” Cajuns receiver Jamal Robinson said of last week’s loss. “But we’re going to bounce back, put the past in the past. New Mexico State is the only game on our minds right now.”
“We know what’s in front of us,” said Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth, who is 21-5 at Cajun Field and 27-9 in Sun Belt play. “We’re saying that we have three-plus games left, and we control the ‘plus’ by controlling the way we play.”
The Cajuns were effective in the way they played last year against NMSU. Terrance Broadway threw for three scores, Elijah McGuire rushed for 136 yards and scored twice, Jared Johnson caught two touchdown passes and Tracy Walker had two of the team’s three interceptions.
Of that group, Broadway has graduated, McGuire has struggled for running room in four straight games, Johnson has been out all year with a torn tendon from an August practice, and Walker injured a shoulder against Georgia State and missed the USA game.
Walker and fellow safety T.J. Worthy, who has missed two games with an injured hamstring, are set to return Saturday.
“All year long, we’ve been playing musical chairs in the secondary at safety,” Hudspeth said of a defense that has given up 265, 312 and 288 passing yards in its past three games.
The Cajuns offense also has struggled with consistency, having scored only four touchdowns in the past two games. UL-Lafayette needed a special-teams score on a blocked punt to help in its 23-21 win at Georgia State, and an 85-yard interception return by Savion Brown tied last week’s game at 25 with 8:26 left.
McGuire was held to 21 yards on 11 carries at USA, leaving the offense on the shoulders of quarterback Brooks Haack. He finished 21-of-34 for 270 yards and one score, while Robinson had a breakout game with 10 catches for 188 yards. But Haack also had a costly interception late in the game that set up the Jaguars’ winning touchdown.
“We’re not playing as well as we’d like,” Hudspeth said. “Our guys see the things on film that we have to correct. You see a catch or a play that can change the game, and we’ve had opportunities to do that. We’re just not making a lot of breaks for ourselves.
“Eli’s not 100 percent and not at the level he’d like to play at. Hopefully with the extra rest time he can get closer to that again.”
The Cajuns defensive front’s primary task will be to slow the nation’s fifth-leading rusher, Larry Rose III (1,286 yards, 12 touchdowns). Rose ranks third nationally in yards per rush at 7.6 and torched Texas State for 207 yards two weeks ago, his third 200-yard game of the year.
“He’s one of the best backs in the conference, and we’re going to have a challenge there,” Hudspeth said of Rose, who was limited to 25 yards on four carries in last year’s game.