In what has become a fairly consistent tradition, the first Saturday of bowl season includes a contest at the Mercedes-Benz SuperDome. It’s there where the Southern Miss Golden Eagles and Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns will face off in the 16th edition of the New Orleans Bowl.
Both teams needed to get hot late in the season just to clinch bowl eligibility.
After getting off to a 4-1 start, Southern Miss won just one of its next six games and found themselves at 5-6 heading into the season finale. Needing a win against eventual Conference USA West Division champion Louisiana Tech, the Golden Eagles came up big and pulled off a 39-24 upset.
Louisiana-Lafayette was in an even more precarious predicament. Through ten games, they were 4-6 and needed a two-game winning streak to qualify for a bowl. The first must-win situation came against Arkansas State who were six-point favorites. ULL won 24-19 and in so doing handed the Red Wolves their only Sun Belt loss of the season. A week later, the Cajuns thoroughly dominated in-state rival Louisiana-Monroe 30-3.
As these two teams get ready to clash in the Big Easy, here’s what to expect.
2016 New Orleans Bowl Preview: Cajun Country Clash
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
When you think of gunslinging quarterbacks, perhaps the first person who comes to mind is Southern Miss alum Brett Favre. Though current Golden Eagle quarterback Nick Mullens doesn’t have Favre’s name recognition, he’s cast from that same mold. The senior signal caller is currently 14th in FBS, averaging 292.6 yards per game. Though he’s dealt with a few injuries this season including a dislocated thumb and a concussion, Mullens should be full strength for Saturday’s game.
In the backfield, look for running back Ito Smith to garner the lion’s share of reps in the ground game. Smith led Conference USA with 19.92 attempts per game and finished the regular season ranked 20th nationally with 1,321 rushing yards. In the team’s 44-35 upset of Kentucky in week one, Smith rushed for a career high 173 yards on 36 carries.
Mullens has a wide array of targets to choose from in the passing game. Nine Southern Miss receivers caught touchdown passes in 2016, led by Allenzae Staggers and D.J. Thompson who hauled in six apiece. Staggers led the team with 927 receiving yards and averaged 18.18 yards per catch, the third best mark in Conference USA.
The Golden Eagles boast a stingy defense which doesn’t give up much in the form of overall yardage. Their 330.9 yards allowed per game is 18th best in the nation. Even more pronounced is their ability to defend the pass, having given up just 2,179 yards in the air which ranks 12th in FBS.
Dylan Bradley leads the USM defensive front. The senior defensive lineman had seven sacks (fourth in C-USA) and 14 tackles for loss (third in C-USA) on the year. As a result of his efforts, Bradley was named all-conference first team. This after making C-USA honorable mention last year.
If there’s one thing Southern Miss struggles with on the defensive side of the football, it’s forcing turnovers. The Golden Eagles rank 102nd nationally with 14 total takeaways including nine interceptions and five fumble recoveries. That said, defensive backs Curtis Mikell and Devonta Foster have a pick six each on the season.
Southern Miss gradually improved during Todd Monken’s three years as head coach, culminating in a 9-5 season last year. But Monken departed for Army and was replaced by Jay Hopson, who spent the previous four seasons at Alcorn State in the same capacity. He has the Golden Eagles in a bowl game for the second consecutive year after missing out the previous three. Before that, USM made a bowl in 14 of 15 seasons from 1997-2011. Hopson has his work cut out for him to get this program back to those lofty standards.
Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
Suffice it to say, ULL struggled offensively in 2016. The Ragin’ Cajuns are no better than 60th nationally in the four major statistical categories on offense and are 100th or worse in three of them. Only two schools in the Sun Belt had lower pass yardage totals, and both (Appalachian State and Georgia Southern) are consistently known for being run-happy offenses.
Quarterback Anthony Jennings, who transferred from LSU, struggled for consistency. Though he finished the regular season completing a respectable 61.1 percent of his passes, he threw more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (11). His pass efficiency rating of 122.7 ranked 82nd in FBS. The Cajuns success (or lack thereof) appeared partly tied to his ability to eclipse the 200 yard threshold. Jennings exceeded that mark just once in ULL’s six losses while he did so in three of their six wins.
If there’s one facet of the offense where Louisiana-Lafayette should excel at in New Orleans, it’s the run game. Senior Elijah McGuire was one of three Sun Belt running backs to finish the regular season with over 1,000 yards rushing. It marked the third consecutive season the Houma, LA native accomplished that feat.
The Cajuns’ relative proficiency on defense has helped minimize the the team’s deficiencies on the other side of the football. This is especially true when it comes to stuffing the run. ULL’s 128.67 rushing yards allowed per game is third best in the Sun Belt and top 25 among FBS schools.
Joe Dillon and Trev Miller are two players to watch at the line of scrimmage. The two defensive linemen have combined for ten sacks and 17 tackles for loss thus far. Linebackers Otha Peters and Tre’maine Lightfoot were among 15 players in the Sun Belt to finish with more than 85 tackles during the regular season. Peters was the only player on the Cajun defense to earn all-conference first team honors.
Forcing mistakes out of opposing quarterbacks was hard to come by. The Cajuns’ nine interceptions rank 74th in FBS. Junior defensive back Tracy Walker led the team with three, while defensive tackle Taboris Lee had the only pick six of the season for the team.
Under head coach Mark Hudspeth, the Ragin’ Cajuns have become accustomed to closing things out in New Orleans. Saturday’s game will mark the fifth time in his six seasons at the helm of the program that they’ve appeared in this bowl game. They’ve won all four previous games even though two were eventually vacated due to academic violations.
Given the geographical proximity of New Orleans to both these schools, fans should be out in full force. It’s possible that the game might come close to breaking the all-time attendance record of 54,728 set in 2013. On the field, the edge goes to Southern Miss given ULL’s passing woes.
Prediction: Southern Miss 34, Louisiana-Lafayette 27
Logo photo courtesy of the New Orleans Bowl.