LAFAYETTE, La. — The chase for the Sun Belt Conference title runs through the swamps of southern Louisiana tonight.
Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette collide in a made-for-television edition of Tuesday night football with serious Sun Belt implications. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Cajun Field and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
For both the Red Wolves and Ragin’ Cajuns, there is no getting around what the matchup means.
"If you want to have a chance to win the championship, you’ve got to win," first-year Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn said.
Arkansas State (4-3 overall, 2-1 SBC) and Louisiana-Lafayette find themselves one game back of conference leader Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks stunned Western Kentucky in overtime, 43-42, with a two-point conversion to take sole possession of first place on Saturday.
Both still have Louisiana-Monroe on the schedule, so both can make up the ground necessary to climb back into at least a share of the conference lead. And that makes winning vital to each program’s conference aspirations.
"It’s definitely the biggest game on our schedule right now," ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin said. "Each game has got to be as important as every other, but this is one of those games you’ve got to go out and get. It’s going to be a tough environment down there."
Considered one of several preseason contenders, Louisiana-Lafayette was living up to expectations until it stumbled a week ago at North Texas. ULL, dealing with a rash of injuries at the skill positions, blew a two-touchdown lead in the second half and lost to UNT 30-23.
Now the Ragin’ Cajuns face the same uphill battle as Arkansas State in the SBC. From here on out, each week is a must-win scenario.
"We know we’re in a corner with one loss, but I don’t think there’s a team in the Sun Belt that’s going to run the table," Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. "The best thing about it is we can control our own destiny."
It’s been 10 days since Arkansas State’s last game with a lot of bumps and bruises getting there.
The Red Wolves took a couple of extra days off, reevaluated themselves and have focused on ULL for a week. With a front-loaded schedule that included seven games since Sept. 1, Malzahn wanted his team to recharge for such an important matchup.
"We’ve given our guys a couple of days off, which I think is very important," Malzahn said. "They’ve played seven games in a short period of time. We’re trying to get them fresh mentally and physically."
Physically, the Red Wolves are as healthy as they’ve been since the opener.
Senior receiver Taylor Stockemer came back from an injury with a big performance in ASU’s 36-29 victory over South Alabama. Defensive end Eddie Porter did not play in that game, but is expected to return. Junior right guard Cliff Mitchell has been out since the first game and his availability remains unknown.
Louisiana-Lafayette (4-2, 2-1) is walking a much different line.
The Ragin’ Cajuns lost running back Montrel Carter the first week and fifth-year senior quarterback Blaine Gautier three weeks later. Last week at UNT, running back Alonzo Harris was sick and unable to play while ULL’s top two receivers — Harry Peoples and Javone Lawson — were injured, as was fifth-year senior offensive lineman Leonardo Bates.
While Carter is out for the season and Gautier won’t be back for a couple of weeks, the rest are supposed to play. How healthy they’ll be is uncertain, but Hudspeth is confident they’ll be ready.
"We’re still going to be playing some guys we didn’t think would be playing at this point, but that’s part of football," Hudspeth acknowledged.
The battle along the offensive and defensive lines will be crucial.
Arkansas State leads the Sun Belt in rushing offense, averaging 215 yards a game on the ground. Louisiana-Lafayette is third in run defense (129 yards per game) and total defense.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have a veteran offensive line with four senior starters back from last year. Their D-line did not return any starters.
Malzahn believes the team that wins the battles up front has a good chance of winning.
"For us to be successful, we have to be able to run the football," Malzahn said. "Any time you can stop the run defensively, that concerns you. They’re very big and athletic up front. They’ve got some athleticism all around their defense, but their defensive front is very talented."
The last time these teams met, it was a battle between the league’s top teams.
Arkansas State derailed UL-Lafayette’s SBC title hopes with a 30-21 victory. ASU went on to win the conference outright while ULL finished third behind Western Kentucky.
The Ragin’ Cajuns haven’t forgotten, and Hudspeth said last year’s game is motivation.
"We’re going to play that up, no doubt," Hudspeth said. " … If that doesn’t sting you a little bit, nothing will."
A crowd of close to 30,000 is expected to pour into Cajun Field, where Arkansas State hasn’t won in 20 years. Louisiana-Lafayette leads the series 21-18-1, and has won eight straight at home.
The Red Wolves know they must end their skid at ULL if they want to repeat as conference champions.
"This is a big game for us," ASU safety Sterling Young said. "It’s another make-or-break situation."
While no ASU team has won at ULL since 1992, the Red Wolves believe they can.
"Anything can happen in the Sun Belt," Aplin said.