New Orleans, LA – Participating in the postseason for the Benz Superdome.
Led by head coach Rocky Long, who assumed the position after Brady Hoke made his way back to Michigan, the Aztecs consider themselves fortunate to be playing in back-to-back bowl games for the first time over the course of the program's 43-yard Division I history. The Aztecs put together another solid season in the Mountain West Conference, even though they were overshadowed by nationally-ranked member TCU and Boise State.
San Diego State finished the regular season with back-to-back wins and three in the last four outings, the lone setback during that time coming against 10th-ranked Boise State by a massive 52-35 score. The other two defeats in MWC action were handed out by the Horned Frogs (27-14) and a surprising Wyoming group (30-27) at Qualcomm Stadium no less. At 8-4 overall and 4-3 in league play, coach Long and his bunch easily earned another turn in the postseason. Last year, the Aztecs recorded a 35-14 win over Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl, marking the first postseason triumph for the group since 1969.
As for the Ragin' Cajuns, they are under the direction of first-year head coach Mark Hudspeth and even though the team lost back-to-back games against Arkansas State and Arizona to close out the regular season, they still wound up with an 8-4 mark which was good enough to send Louisiana to a bowl game for the first time in 41 years, the fourth-longest drought in the nation. This is actually the third bowl game all-time for the Cajuns, the most recent of those coming against Tennessee State in the Grantland Rice Bowl held at Memorial Stadium in Baton Rouge in 1970.
In addition to knowing that playing a team like San Diego State will help the Ragin' Cajuns gain more national exposure, coach Hudspeth is well aware of the challenges that lie in front of him and his players this weekend.
"You've got to prepare for not only a very good running back, you've got a really good quarterback, you've got a really good receiving corps. When you face a team like that it's like, where do you plug the dam? And so we've got to be really smart that when we do plug the dam we plug it at the right time because they've got a lot of weapons."
The weapons that coach Hudspeth speaks of are running back Ronnie Hillman and quarterback Ryan Lindley most specifically. In the case of Hillman, he was one of four running backs in the MWC to reach at least 1,000 yards on the ground, needing just seven games to achieve the feat. Averaging 138.0 ypg on the ground to rank first in his league and third in the nation overall, Hillman became the first Aztec back since Marshall Faulk to register back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns and he is still just a sophomore so there are still bigger and better things in store for the punishing runner.
As for Lindley, he holds the Mountain West record for career passing yards with 12,277 and now needs just 260 yards passing against the Ragin' Cajuns to become just the third QB in Mountain West Conference history to have at least 3,000 yards passing in three consecutive seasons. However, unlike Hillman who was named to the All-MWC First Team, Lindley didn't even earn all conference honors, so he may just have a sizeable chip on his shoulder moving forward.
From a defensive standpoint, stopping the run wasn't necessarily a strong point for the Aztecs on the average, allowing 177.5 ypg which ranked them third in the conference and 81st in the nation, but the pass defense made up for some of those deficits.
Defensive back Larry Parker often stole the show for the unit as he recorded a total of seven interceptions which was the most since 1969 for the program. While it's not a stat that can directly attributed to Parker, another positive for the defense this season has been that no opposing offense has scored more than a single touchdown in the second half of any one of SDSU's 12 games leading up to the postseason.
The defense for the Aztecs will be planning on how to slow down Louisiana quarterback Blaine Gautier, who has thrown for at least 300 yards in a game four times in 2011 and has tied former signal-caller Jake Delhomme for the single-season school record for passing TDs with 20. The rushing offense for the Cajuns has been rather pedestrian with an average of just 129.3 ypg which was not just seventh in the Sun Belt Conference, but also 86th on a national scale.
The Ragin' Cajuns were able to register a hefty 338 yards rushing against Middle Tennessee in late October so certainly there's some potential there, but in the three games after that display the program failed to run for more than 80 yards in any one outing.
Where Lindley and the Aztecs have to be careful is trying to get too greedy with passing the ball this weekend. San Diego State might think that the Louisiana secondary is ripe for the picking after permitting 248.7 ypg through the air, seventh in the SBC and 92nd in the country, but the truth is the Cajuns are an opportunistic bunch when it comes to creating turnovers. More specifically, Louisiana is second in the nation with an astounding seven interceptions returned for touchdowns, six of those coming from the defensive backs so Lindley has got to be careful when searching out options further down the field.
Even though Louisiana is generally the type of team that flies under the national radar, coach Long knows all too well that this matchup is not one that the Aztecs can simply run away with.
"They are very skilled; they have a lot of seniors on their team so they've got great leadership. They've got really good speed, they're very physical and it's going to be a great football game. I think that the two teams match each other very well. We think we're fast, we think we're tough; they think they're fast, they think they're tough. That's what a bowl game should be."