by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
New Orleans Bowl
Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4) vs. San Diego State (8-4)
Date: Dec., 17 at 9 p.m. ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.
Both teams ended this season with an 8-4 record, with Louisiana-Lafayette claiming third in the Sun Belt and San Diego State finishing fourth in the Mountain West. The Big Easy crowd will see plenty of points in what should be a Saturday night thriller — the Ragin’ Cajuns averaged over 32 points per game this season while the Aztecs scored over 29 points per contest. Both clubs were led by head coaches in their first year at their respective schools. Long-time New Mexico head coach Rocky Long joined Brady Hoke at SDSU as defensive coordinator in 2009 after leaving Albuquerque. When Hoke took the Michigan job, Long was promoted to lead the Aztecs. Mark Hudspeth took over in Lafayette this season after two years as a position coach at Mississippi State under Dan Mullen. Prior to MSU, Hudspeth was a very successful head coach at Division II North Alabama for seven seasons.
The New Orleans Bowl will be the first postseason contest for Louisiana-Lafayette as an FBS member, and it will be only the third bowl game at any level in school history. San Diego State got its first postseason win since 1969 in last year’s 35-14 Poinsettia Bowl victory over Navy. The Aztecs will only be making their third postseason appearance over the last 20 seasons, so back-to-back bowl wins would be very significant to the growth of the SDSU program.
San Diego State had seven players named first-team All-Mountain West, including two-time, all-league tailback Ronnie Hillman. The elusive runner totaled 1,656 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground this season. Five Ragin’ Cajuns were tabbed first-team All-Sun Belt, with tight end Ladarius Green receiving that honor for the second consecutive season. He is the NCAA's active career leader in touchdowns by a tight end.
WHEN SAN DIEGO STATE HAS THE BALL
It all starts with the aforementioned Hillman. The best San Diego State runner since Marshall Faulk ranked No. 3 in the nation in rushing, Hillman is averaging 138 yards per game. He topped the 100-yard rushing mark nine times this season, while going over 140 yards in seven of those games. The sophomore sensation is actually eligible for next April’s NFL draft (three years removed from high school) so this could his last SDSU game.
Quarterback Ryan Lindley had an inconsistent season, having to break in new targets after the departures of receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson from last season’s potent offense. Colin Lockett led the Aztecs with 52 catches for 885 yards, but the top red zone target is All-MWC tight end Gavin Escobar (seven TDs). The SDSU offensive line did an excellent job in pass protection, as well as paving the way for Hillman.
All-Sun Belt linebacker and leading tackler Lance Kelly will lead a Louisiana-Lafayette defense that ranked 72nd in the nation. Obviously, the Ragin’ Cajuns' top priority will be to stop Hillman from running wild. Louisiana-Lafayette will attempt to get some pressure on Lindley with all-league defensive lineman Bernard Smith, who led the team with 13 tackles for loss and six and a half sacks.
WHEN LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE HAS THE BALL
Quarterback Blaine Gautier is the key player on the Ragin’ Cajuns efficient attack, which ranked 65th in total offense but 32nd in scoring. The junior signal caller tossed 20 touchdowns against five interceptions this season, while also adding 434 yards on the ground. Running back Alonzo Harris led the team with 638 yards and eight touchdowns.
Gautier has a pair of first team All-Sun Belt weapons in receiver Javone Lawson and tight end Ladarius Green. Lawson had 54 catches for 899 yards and six scores. Green struggled with injuries early in the season, but he had 32 receptions for 308 yards and four touchdowns in his last four games. SDSU will definitely need to know where No. 89 is at all times.
Senior linebacker Miles Burris led the Aztecs with a staggering 19 tackles for loss (eighth in the country) and eight sacks this season. SDSU had 27 takeaways this year and is led by two All-MWC defensive backs, Larry Parker (seven interceptions) and Leon McFadden
Both teams have excellent punters and do not get much in the return game. The advantage here falls to Louisiana-Lafayette based on field-goal kicking. The Ragin’ Cajuns kicker and punter, Brett Baer, was 16-of-18 on field goal attempts this year with five makes of 40-plus yards. He also averaged 40.5 yards on 75 punts, including stopping 24 inside the 20-yard line.
San Diego State punter Brian Stahovich, a two-time All-MWC selection, averaged a solid 43.4 yards on 57 attempts. He had 16 punts over 50 yards and put 17 of them inside the 20-yard line.
Aztecs kicker Abelardo Perez struggled this season, only converting five of his 13 field-goal tries.
San Diego State seems to have the talent advantage in this one, but Louisiana-Lafayette will play well in its home state. Mark Hudspeth is a rising star in the coaching profession, and his staff has had three weeks to scheme for Ronnie Hillman and the Aztecs’ defensive pressure.
SDSU is one of the best teams in the country in turnover margin, and that could make the difference in the New Orleans Bowl. Look for an exciting Saturday night in the Big Easy, and for Hillman to star in a close Aztecs’ victory.
San Diego State 31, Louisiana-Lafayette 27