Louisiana-Lafayette Vs. San Diego State, New Orleans Bowl 2011: David Becomes Goliath.

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 24: Ronnie Hillman #13 of San Diego State runs for a first down as Jordan Kovacs #32 of the Michigan Wolverines attempts to make the stop runs during the first half of the game at Michigan Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Louisiana-Lafayette will have home field and first-bowl-ever momentum on their side, while San Diego State has Ronnie Hillman and the best pair of cornerbacks you've never heard of. This should be one of the more exciting early bowls on the docket.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

Even the most cold-hearted, playoff-or-bust fan has to admit: it's pretty cool seeing this. You don't have to watch the New Orleans Bowl if you don't want to, but why would you want to take this moment away from Louisiana-Lafayette fans? They get to celebrate a good season, they get to truly matter for one day, and you don't have to watch if you don't want to. Geaux Cajuns, indeed.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
UL-Lafayette 8-4 NR 81 74 86 75
San Diego State 8-4 NR 69 77 57 64
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
UL-Lafayette 73 66 62 109
San Diego State 44 71 6 100

So the tables have turned a bit on San Diego State. Last year, playing in their backyard, they trounced Navy in their first bowl game in 12 years. Now, they go to someone else's backyard and take on a team playing in its first game ever. This will basically be a home game for the Ragin' Cajuns, and the Aztecs will get a taste of life on the other end of a favorable bowl location.

Before we go full-on into the preview, we should celebrate what Mark Hudspeth has done this year with the UL-Lafayette program. He inherited a team that had been performing at or below the average level for a Sun Belt program, that had not won more than six games in a season since 1993, and that returned only ten starters. I saw only baby steps in the cards for the Cajuns this year. I was wrong.

For much of Bustle's tenure, UL(L) was a league-average Sun Belt team, but they slipped the last couple of seasons.  The Ragin' Cajuns have the second-worst recruiting average in the country, and they only return ten starters.  It's almost a bad thing that so much of the talent Hudspeth inherits seems to come at the quarterback position, unless he is such an offensive innovator that he figures out how to play two quarterbacks simultaneously.  The winner of the quarterbacks derby should be a good one, though, and with a weapon like Green and a great offensive mind like Hudspeth, one has to assume the offense will improve.  But "improving" in this case just means recovering the team's status as an average Sun Belt team.  In other words, 2011 will likely be a baby steps year for Hudspeth and UL(L).

Their F/+ ranking of 81st is easily their best in the "F/+ era," so to speak (their previous high: 94th in 2008), and especially with a home crowd in their corner, they have a chance to celebrate not only their first bowl, but their first bowl win.

When UL-Lafayette Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
UL-Lafayette Offense 74 71 82 84 68 106 52
San Diego State Defense 57 47 59 35 46 60 25
Team Std. Downs
% Run
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
% Run
P.D. S&P+
Rk
UL-Lafayette Offense 55.4% 70 36.2% 94
San Diego State Defense 68.5% 17 41.8% 87
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

For all intents and purposes, San Diego State's defense will be the best unit on the field tonight. At least, it has been thus far in 2011. The Aztecs prevent big plays and have a legitimately strong pass defense -- to the point where opponents run the ball an inordinately high amount of time on passing downs. They have potentially the best pair of cornerbacks in the country at the mid-major level. Senior Larry Parker and junior Leon McFadden have combined for the following statistics: 86.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, nine interceptions and 19 passes broken up. Only 40 players in the country have defended (intercepted or broken up) 13 or more passes in 2011; SDSU is one of only six teams to field two of those players. Throw in an active, steady safety in sophomore Nat Berhe (47.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU) and a trio of good sideline-to-sideline linebackers, and you've got yourself an excellent pass defense.

The Aztec secondary will be tested by a solid Cajun passing game, however. Hudspeth wants to pass the ball quite a bit on standard downs, and quarterback Blaine Gautier will spread the ball to four different targets on such downs -- wideouts Javone Lawson, Harry Peoples and Darryl Surgent and monstrous tight end Ladarius Green. With Lawson and Peoples presumably attracting the attention of Parker and McFadden, Green and Surgent could become key cogs if the Cajuns are going to be successful on offense. Green is a frequent (if only semi-successful) target on passing downs; Gautier will often roll out to find run-or-pass situations on these downs.

When San Diego State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
San Diego State Offense 77 81 75 105 78 70 100
UL-Lafayette Defense 86 102 81 68 104 93 92
Team Std. Downs
% Run
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
% Run
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
San Diego State Offense 61.2% 81 32.9% 98
UL-Lafayette Defense 58.2% 102 25.9% 85
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Between Ronnie Hillman's legs and Mark Hudspeth's offensive background, the offenses have grabbed much of the attention in this matchup. But the defenses hold quite a few matchup advantages. Despite Hillman's presence, the Aztecs have been quite inefficient in 2011, and an efficient ULL defense could make them pay.

You don't want to constantly face passing downs in a hostile environment, and that could be exactly the situation SDSU is forced to address. The Cajuns have been ridiculously all-or-nothing in 2011 -- they have racked up 84 tackles for loss (seven per game) ... and they rank 104th in PPP+, i.e. big plays allowed. Seven Cajun defenders have compiled at least five tackle for loss, led by defensive end Bernard Smith (34.0 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks, five quarterback hurries), linebackers Lance Kelly (83.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, three interceptions, six passes broken up) and Devon Lewis-Buchanan (65.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, one interception, six passes broken up), and crazy-aggressive cornerback Melvin White (52.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, two interceptions, five passes broken up).

A damn-the-torpedoes approach to defense could work in a homefield environment, especially considering bowls are often decided by who is aggressive and motivated and who isn't. But if ULL commits a misstep, Ronnie Hillman will make them pay. Hillman rolled to 1,709 yards (5.8 per carry, plus-10.8 Adj. POE) in his sophomore season. He broke at least one 40-yard run in five different games, but he was a bit all-or-nothing himself. He rushed for a combined 143 yards in 47 carries versus TCU, Colorado State and Boise State (3.0 per carry) but erupted for at least six yards per carry seven times. If SDSU wins, he will be the major reason why, as the Aztecs' passing game just has not gotten off of the ground despite the best efforts of quarterback Ryan Lindley. He was dealt an almost entirely new receiving corps in 2011, and his two most frequent targets (Colin Lockett and Gavin Escobar) have combined for 16.1 yards per catch, but with just a 54 percent catch rate.

The Verdict

San Diego State by 3.3.

The F/+ projection does not take any sort of homefield advantage for UL-Lafayette into account, but it probably should. Regardless, this sets up as a closer game than the current 4.5-point spread would suggest.

This game will likely come down to whether UL-Lafayette can convert on passing downs, and whether San Diego State can avoid them. Last year's David (SDSU) is this year's Goliath -- they are playing in their second consecutive bowl and are set to join the now-ridiculously named Big East soon, in part because of their recent success -- and it is quite possible that they could fall victim to the same motivation-and-homefield situation that benefited them last year.

This should be a game with big plays, of both the offensive and defensive variety, and a less-sterile-than-normal bowl environment. You want to watch this one.

 

 

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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