NEW ORLEANS, LA (WDAM) - The University of Southern Mississippi and University of Louisiana-Lafayette literally waited until the last moment to have an opportunity to renew a rivalry that had sat dormant the past seven seasons.
The Golden Eagles (6-6) and Ragin' Cajuns (6-6) will meet at 8 p.m. Saturday in the 16th annual R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The game will mark the 52nd meeting between teams who have not played since 2008, and both teams had to win final, regular-season games to secure the opportunity to do that.
Sixth-year Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth, who grew up in Louisville, Mississippi, and was a four-year letterman/three-year starter at Delta State University, said he had a pretty good idea what his Ragin' Cajuns would be running into Saturday night.
"Growing up in Mississippi, I know a lot about their tradition, their success, the great players they've come through that program," Hudspeth said. "They are consistent winners, and over the test of time, they've probably been the winningest Division I program in the state over the long haul."
USM coach Jay Hopson said the Golden Eagles will have their talons full with a team that lost road games in double overtime and quadruple overtime before winning three of its last four games.
"(They have) tremendous coaches," Hopson said. "We have all the respect in the world for Lafayette. We're excited. It's (going to be) a great game. It's a team that we have the utmost respect for. It's two teams with great tradition. Should be a good crowd. It's a great bowl setting. It's a great bowl game for us and we're just excited to be in New Orleans."
Billy Ferrante, R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl executive director, said he expected about 30,000 people Saturday at the Superdome.
Both teams have done well in past New Orleans Bowls. The Ragin Cajuns' won four consecutive trips to the Big Easy between 2011-14, while USM went 3-1 in four trips made over a six-year span from 2004-09.
This year, both teams have standout running backs.
UL-Lafayette senior Elijah McGuire recorded a third, consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, with 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns. He also ranked third on the team with 21 receptions for 231 yards and two touchdowns.
USM junior Ito Smith turned in the fourth-best season by a Golden Eagle ballcarrier, rushing for a career-high 1,321 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also ranked third on the team with 42 receptions for 453 yards and another touchdown.
"My coaches put me in great positions, and it all goes back to that, finding different ways to get me the ball," Smith said. "The O-line, they've been doing a tremendous job, and with Nick (Mullens) back (at quarterback), the pass game's been on, so that opens up a lot of doors."
Mullens may be the difference maker.
Despite missing two games while recovering from a concussion, and playing the latter part of the season with a banged up thumb on his throwing hand, Mullens became the program's all-time leader in career passing yards and touchdowns.
This season, the senior completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,926 yards and 22 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 10 games. With 74 yards passing against the Ragin' Cajuns, Mullens would join Austin Davis as the only Golden Eagles with at least two, 3,000-yard passing seasons.
"I do know that Nick Mullens is one the best quarterbacks out there," Hudspeth said. "And when they have him out there, they have been really hot. He's just a dynamic passer."
UL-Lafayette transfer quarterback Anthony Jennings completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 2,083 yards and 12 touchdowns with 11 interceptions this fall.
Jennings provided a double threat, finishing behind only McGuire in rushing with 322 yards and matching McGuire's seven touchdowns.
The game will mark the final go-round for 22 USM seniors, and receiver D.J. Thompson said he was grateful for the opportunity to wind out his USM career close to home.
"It's just such a good thing," Thompson said. "A lot of us on this team are from Mississippi or Louisiana or Alabama, these nearby states, where parents are in driving distance of the game, and I'm happiest about that more than anything."
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