The first full Saturday of bowl action for the 2021-22 college football season concludes with Marshall meeting Louisiana in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. The Ragin’ Cajuns feel right at home in the Superdome, as this game marks the sixth time this program has played in this bowl. Also, with Lafayette just a short drive from New Orleans, Louisiana will have a decided home-field advantage. But Marshall won’t lack for motivation here. The Thundering Herd finished a solid 7-5 in coach Charles Huff’s first year and will be hungry to finish 2021 on a high note.
Change is in the air for Louisiana. After guiding the Ragin’ Cajuns to a 40-12 record with three division titles and a Sun Belt championship, coach Billy Napier departed for Florida in early December. Michael Desormeaux – a former Louisiana quarterback and assistant with the program since 2016 – was promoted to head coach. The New Orleans Bowl will be Desormeaux’s first as the full-time coach, but the bulk of the roster is in place for this game and the overall transition without Napier should be limited for Saturday night. Louisiana is riding a 12-game winning streak, including victories against Appalachian State in the Sun Belt title game and a 42-14 blowout of Liberty in mid-November. The Ragin’ Cajuns’ 2021 season was already a success with a conference title, and a win over Marshall would add to the program’s highest single-season win total (12).
Marshall also had its share of change this season. New coach Charles Huff started his tenure with a 2-3 mark, but the Thundering Herd went on to win five of its next seven games. Four of Marshall’s five losses came by seven points or less, including defeats to East Carolina, Appalachian State and UAB. A loss to WKU on Nov. 27 prevented the Thundering Herd from winning Conference USA’s East Division title, but overall, Huff had a solid all-around debut in Huntington.
Marshall and Louisiana have never met on the gridiron. However, there’s a good chance these two teams see each other more often in the near future with Marshall set to join the Sun Belt prior to the ’22 or ’23 season. The Thundering Herd are 7-2 in their last nine bowl trips. The Ragin Cajuns are 6-2 all-time in bowls. Also, Louisiana is 4-1 in the New Orleans Bowl.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Louisiana (12-1) vs. Marshall (7-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 18 at 9:15 p.m. ET
Where: Caesars Superdome (New Orleans)
Spread: Louisiana -5
When Marshall Has the Ball
One of Huff’s first decisions as head coach was to retain offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. That move paid off for Marshall, as the offense ranks second in Conference USA in yards per play (6.4) and third in scoring (34.0 ppg). The Thundering Herd also rank second in the league in plays of 40-plus yards (22).
Quarterback Grant Wells directs an offense that has a slight lean to the pass in play-calling (52 percent), and the redshirt freshman capped his second year as the starter with 3,436 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. The West Virginia native has been accurate (67 percent) but has to take better care of the ball (21 interceptions since the start of 2020). Wells left the regular-season finale against WKU due to injury but appears to be on track to play on Saturday night.
Receiver Corey Gammage (69 catches) is the top target for Wells, with Willie Johnson (32), Shadeed Ahmed (36), Jayden Harrison (23), and Talik Keaton (19) as well as tight end Xavier Gaines (41) forming a talented collection of playmakers. Louisiana has been aggressive at getting to the quarterback (38 sacks) and ranks second in pass efficiency defense in the Sun Belt. However, Arkansas State, Troy and FCS Nicholls each eclipsed 300-plus yards through the air against this unit, showing it’s possible to move the ball against the Ragin’ Cajuns with the pass. Marshall has been solid at pass protection (17 sacks allowed), but even if Wells has time to throw, the Louisiana defense isn’t giving up much on the back end.
Although the play-calling is tilted slightly to the pass, the best player for Huff and Cramsey is running back Rasheen Ali (1,241 yards). The freshman scored 20 times on the ground and was a valuable safety outlet in the passing game (44 catches) all year. Similar to the pass defense, Louisiana has been tough versus the run. The Ragin’ Cajuns are allowing just 3.87 yards per rush and 145.9 yards a contest. However, four of the last five opponents ran for at least 164 yards, and this unit won’t have linebacker Ferrod Gardner (67 tackles) and lineman Tayland Humphrey (31) on Saturday night. Those two absences could make it slightly easier for Ali to find room to run.
When Louisiana Has the Ball
With Napier off to Florida, Desormeaux will work as the primary play-caller on Saturday night. The time off between the Sun Belt title game and the New Orleans Bowl allowed Desormeaux to get acquainted with this role, and the offense isn’t expected to make any drastic changes. With the same scheme and a familiar face calling plays, the transition time should be minimal. Also, Desormeaux will have help from a veteran core of key contributors on offense.
Quarterback Levi Lewis is one of the veterans Desormeaux is going to lean upon on Saturday night. The senior enters the New Orleans Bowl with 8,933 career passing yards and 73 touchdowns and another 1,014 yards and 14 scores on the ground. Lewis won’t post huge totals through the air, but his efficiency (60.4 completion percentage) and lack of mistakes (four picks over 359 attempts) keep the offense on track.
Leading receiver Peter LeBlanc (37 catches) is expected to miss Saturday night’s matchup, but there’s plenty of depth in the receiving corps. Michael Jefferson (15 catches) showed big-play potential this year, and Dontae Fleming, Kyren Lacy and Errol Rogers Jr. each caught over 20 passes. Tight end Neal Johnson (22) is another weapon to watch. Marshall allowed 17 passing scores in 2021 but led Conference USA in pass efficiency defense. Just two opponents – East Carolina and WKU – eclipsed more than 300 yards against this defense.
The ground attack has been the strength of Louisiana’s offense in recent years, and despite losing Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, there wasn’t a shortage of production in the run game for this team in 2021. The Ragin’ Cajuns are averaging 192 yards a game behind a strong offensive line and a backfield that featured three players over 500 yards. Chris Smith paces the team with 856 yards, with Montrell Johnson (784) and Emani Bailey (548) also seeing a handful of carries. However, Desormeaux will have to overcome some absences here, as first-team All-Sun Belt tackle Max Mitchell is not expected to play, and Smith also is out due to injury. While those absences are massive, the matchup against Marshall’s defense still favors Louisiana. The Thundering Herd are giving up 189.7 rushing yards a contest, with six opponents reaching at least 200 on the ground.
Marshall’s defense will bend a little (388.2 yards a game allowed) but is tied for first in C-USA in fewest points allowed (22.8). Helping the Thundering Herd keep opponents out of the end zone has been a good pass rush (38 sacks) and timely stops on third downs and inside the red zone. Getting Louisiana into obvious passing situations and limiting the run game on early downs is critical to Marshall’s hopes of a win. Also, when the Thundering Herd get the Ragin’ Cajuns into obvious passing downs, it has to contain Lewis in the pocket and not allow his legs to become a factor on any scrambles for first-down yardage.
Judging how a team will perform with an interim coach and changes on the staff prior to a bowl is always challenging. Juggling play-calling and head-coach duties for the first time is a new experience for Desormeaux, but the veteran core of players around him should make that transition a little easier. The formula for Desormeaux on offense won’t look much different than it was under Napier: Run the ball and let Lewis create and distribute with efficiency. On the other sideline, Marshall’s one-two punch of Wells and Ali will test a Louisiana defense that allowed only one opponent to score more than 30 points this year. The Ragin’ Cajuns aren’t built to come from behind all night, so if Marshall is able to set the pace and flow of the game by getting ahead early, that should play into Huff’s hands. Another element to watch on Saturday night will be turnovers. The Ragin’ Cajuns were plus-13, while the Thundering Herd were minus-five in that department this fall. On paper, Louisiana is the better team. However, with all of the transition among the coaching staff and a couple of key pieces out, a close victory by Marshall wouldn’t be a surprise.
Prediction: Marshall 27, Louisiana 24
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