By Brett Martel/The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Blaine Gautier’s record-setting passing and a long clutch kick by Brett Baer gave Louisiana-Lafayette fans the kind of thrills they haven’t had since Jake Delhomme was playing for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Gautier passed for 470 yards and three scores, and Baer kicked a 50-yard field goal as time ran out, lifting Louisiana-Lafayette to 32-30 victory over San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday night.
Before the kick had even sailed through the uprights, Baer was off and running in celebration and briefly jumped into the first row of the Superdome stands before teammates caught up with him and lifted the kicker onto their shoulders.
“This game meant everything to our players. A lot them grew up in New Orleans. It was a dream come true for them,” first-year coach Mark Hudspeth, a former member of Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State staff, said. “We didn’t have one kid walk in late even for breakfast in preparation for this game.”
Playing in their first bowl game as a Division I FBS team, the Ragin Cajuns (9-4) led most of the way but fell behind 30-29 when Aztecs quarterback Ryan Lindley connected with Colin Lockett on a 12-yard touchdown strike with 35 seconds to go.
“Thirty seconds on the clock? You’d like to think (the game was over),” Lindley said. “It was a hard fought game and you have to tip your caps to them.”
Gautier drove Louisiana-Lafayette 44 yards to the Aztecs 38 to set up what was initially a 55-yard attempt, but a pre-snap penalty on SDSU (8-5) for trying to bait the Cajuns into a false start moved the winning kick 5 yards closer.
Gautier finished with 2,958 yards passing and 23 TDs on the season, breaking Delhomme’s single-season school records.
Delhomme held those records since 1996, when he passed for 2,901 yards and 20 TDs.
Gautier’s passing total also shattered the New Orleans Bowl record for yards passing, set a season ago when Troy’s Corey Robinson passed for 387.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to do so much in one night. The get the win is what it was all about,” Gautier said. “The records and all that stuff, that’s a little addition to the way this team plays. We fight so hard and always talk about that fourth quarter being our quarter and we believe that.”
Gautier threw two touchdown passes to Javone Lawson, from 18 and 11 yards out, and had a 20-yard scoring strike to Ladarius Green.
Darryl Surgent returned a punt 87 yards for a score, slicing through SDSU’s punt coverage with a quick cut to his right and a sprint back to the left. The receiver finished with 283 all-purpose yards.
The Ragin’ Cajuns had not appeared in a bowl of any kind since playing in the Grantland Rice Bowl 41 years ago.
Thousands of red-clad, bowl-starved fans followed the Ragin’ Cajuns to New Orleans and helped set a New Orleans Bowl attendance record of 42,841.
Lawson, who grew up in suburban New Orleans, made nine catches for 193 yards, including a 52-yard catch and run that set up Green’s TD. Green caught five passes for 121 yards.
Until his final kick, Baer thought he might have cost his team the game by missing two extra-point tries.
“I was down on myself,” Baer said. “With 35 seconds to go, to get into field goal range was ridiculous. But they did it.”
Lindley was 28 of 49 for 413 yards and three touchdowns. The Aztecs needed every bit of that as their offensive star, running back Ronnie Hillman, was largely bottled up and finished with 55 yards, well below his average of 138 yards.
Lindley found Lockett for a pair of 16-yard scoring passes in the third quarter, when the Aztecs trimmed a 19-3 deficit to 19-17. Lockett’s second TD capped a seven-play, 99-yard drive.
The Ragin’ Cajuns responded with a 14-play, 78-yard drive that included three third-down conversions and Lawson’s second TD.
Adam Muema’s 5-yard touchdown run up the middle pulled SDSU back to 26-24 with 5:40 left, but the Cajuns marched right back down the field and were in position to put the game away.
Surgent made a one-handed catch while reaching around behind defensive back Leon McFadden, even as McFadden was interfering with him. He then broke free of McFadden for a 56-yard gain to the SDSU 20.
Lawson then pulled down a catch between two defenders while being interfered with, giving the Cajuns a first down on the 3. But Louisiana-Lafayette was forced to settle for Baer’s 22-yard field goal, setting up the wild finish.
The Aztecs were left to regret missed opportunities, including a 36-yard field goal attempt that Abeladro Perez hooked wide right with just more than 10 minutes to go.
“We had opportunities and we didn’t make as many plays as they did,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “We missed a field goal. They made a field goal. … Everyone wants to talk about offense and defense, but it was special teams that won the game.”
They had a first-and-goal on the 4 on their opening drive, only to go backward and settle for Perez’s 27-yard field goal.
Early in the second quarter, SDSU appeared to have a successful short passing play set up on fourth-and 1 from the Louisiana-Lafayette 6, but Dylan Denso could not keep his feet as a he made the catch and landed inches short of the first-down marker.