Louisiana Loses First New Orleans Bowl To Southern Miss
Louisiana's first four trips to the Superdome all ended with tears of joy, but this time around the tears felt heavier as they fell to the turf.
The Ragin' Cajuns were so used to winning the New Orleans Bowl that the loss to Southern Miss must have felt like a shock. When the clock hit zero and the scoreboard showed 28-21 in the Golden Eagles' favor, the reality of the loss started to settle onto the crowd like a thick glaze of dazed depression.
Head Coach Mark Hudspeth tried to put the feeling into words only moments after the loss.
"A 4-1 record in bowls is not that bad, but we would have loved to be back up there again," Hudspeth said. He added some perspective on the respect he has for this year's team, "They don't have any quit in them. They did an awesome job of fighting, we just couldn't come up with enough plays when it counted."
It was a valiant effort to even reach bowl eligibility this season, and they only came up a few plays short of another victory. It was a long, grueling game, but the script didn't have the final scene they hoped for.
Southern Miss jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first few minutes, accentuated by a ruling by the officials that was baffling and full of impact.
On Louisiana's first punt of the game, it appeared the ball bounced off a Golden Eagle, but the officials ruled it hit a Louisiana player first. Coach Hudspeth challenged the play, and thousands of people in the Superdome agreed with him when they showed the play over and over again on the jumbotron. The officials spent some time looking it over, but they ended up confirming their initial call, much to Hudspeth's surprise and disappointment.
After Ito Smith put Southern Miss up by two scores, the Cajuns started to climb their way back in the game. Momentum's pendulum began to swing back the opposite direction.
The Cajuns went 66 yards in nine plays on their first drive after Smith's second score, and Jennings punctuated it with his first rushing touchdown of the game. After Southern Miss shanked a field goal attempt, Louisiana failed to do anything on offense, but Otha Peters bailed the team out with a fumble recovery off a forced fumble by his fellow linebacker Tre'maine Lightfoot. Two plays later, Dion Ray found the endzone and tied the game up at 14.
The game shifted from one side to the other in the first half, and Southern Miss' failed to get a play off at the end of the half, so things were locked up at 14 points apiece going into the locker room.
Southern Miss came out in the second half and completely dominated the third quarter. While Louisiana lost players to a targeting foul (Tracy Walker) and injuries, the Golden Eagles extended their lead with a score by Allenzae Staggers, who set a New Orleans Bowl record with 230 receiving yards on 11 receptions.
After the stagnant start to the second half by Louisiana's offense, Southern Miss tacked on another touchdown with Smith's third score of the game, doubling their lead to 28-14. The Cajuns' pulse started to weaken, but their heart wasn't done beating yet.
After a Travis Crawford interception, Jennings led another successful drive to cut the lead down to one score, 28-21, with a little over five minutes left, but that was as close as they got. Louisiana had a chance late in the game to go on a game-tying drive, but the offense couldn't win the race against the clock.
Southern Miss outgained Louisiana 481 yards to 252, and Nick Mullens carved up the Cajun defense for 346 yards in the effort. Smith scored three times on 26 carries and racked up 138 yards, but Staggers still took home the MVP trophy for his historic performance.
In his final game as a Ragin' Cajun, Elijah McGuire collected 106 total yards of offense and he dazzled the crowd with an electric punt return. The problem was, he simply didn't receive enough help from Jennings and the passing game. Louisiana's offense became one dimensional, and it wasn't enough to keep up with the explosive output from Southern Miss and Mullens' air raid.
The Ragin' Cajuns fought a lot of battles this season and won. They overcame two brutal overtime losses, a controversy that marred the momentum they built midway through the season, bumps, bruises and other injuries to earn another postseason appearance. Four bowl wins in five years trains you to expect the same result, but the 2016 finish didn't go down as smooth.
Four bowl wins in six years is still something to be proud of. The 2016 senior class should hold their head high knowing they were part of one of the finest runs in program history. Players like McGuire, Al Riles, Karmichael Dunbar, Eddie Gordon and Jalen Nixon set the standard for what it means to be a Ragin' Cajun, and one game doesn't define a college career.
It will take a while for the lingering effects of the loss to wear off, but when the players look back at the 2016 season they should remember all the battles they fought and won, not the game that got away.
Together, they fought back to bowl eligibility after a rough start to the season, they defied they odds and overcame off the field controversy that threatened to derail their season, and most importantly, they helped a community heal after the devastating floods that ravaged the Acadiana area, lending a hand to complete strangers in the aftermath of the devastation.
Not every football season can end with a bowl trophy. Football is a brutal sport, sometimes more so emotionally than physically. This year's team should hold their head high, no matter how low this loss feels.