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2023 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl Preview: Jacksonville State Gamecocks vs. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

Jax State plays in its first-ever bowl game against frequent New Orleans Bowl participant Louisiana.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 25 Jacksonville State at FIU Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, December 16 at 2:15 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Caesars Superdome — New Orleans, LA
  • Spread: Jacksonville State (-3.5)
  • Over/under: 59.5
  • All-time series: Jacksonville State leads, 1-0
  • Last meeting: Jacksonville State 21, Louisiana 18 — November 11, 2000
  • Current streak: Jacksonville State, 1 (2000)
  • Jacksonville State last bowl: N/A
  • Louisiana last bowl: 2022 Independence Bowl, 23-16 loss to Houston
  • 2022 New Orleans Bowl matchup: WKU 44, South Alabama 23

Setting the scene

Welcome to the greatest time of the year to be a college football fan!

2023 Bowl Season officially commences Saturday, and the second game on the docket is usually one of opening Saturday’s staples. The R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl kicks off at the Superdome for the 23rd consecutive year. This year’s Conference USA vs. Sun Belt matchup features new blood pitted against the team with the most New Orleans Bowl appearances.

The Jacksonville State Gamecocks are bowl bound in their first FBS season, shedding their ineligibility status — which is typically applied to transitioning teams — due to a lack of 6-win teams available for bowls. They’ll look to add their first FBS trophy to the facilities in Jacksonville, AL, capping off a spectacular debut season with a ninth win.

And for the seventh time in New Orleans Bowl history, the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns take the grand stage of the Superdome less than 150 miles east of campus. History usually favors the Ragin’ Cajuns in the confines of their home state, and they won five of their previous six appearances in the bowl, including the 2021 contest vs. Marshall.


Jacksonville State Gamecocks outlook

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 25 Jacksonville State at FIU
Jacksonville State QB Zion Webb broke 100 rushing yards in four different games this year to total 638 in the regular season.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jacksonville State (8-4, 6-2 CUSA) is one of the greatest surprise stories in college football this year. The Gamecocks transitioned from the FCS to Conference USA and immediately became the league’s third-best team — only dropping conference matchups to CUSA Championship Game participants Liberty and New Mexico State.

Jacksonville State is led by a veteran coach who knows a thing or two about winning bowl games. Rich Rodriguez won five bowls as head coach at West Virginia and Arizona, including a 2005 Sugar Bowl with the Mountaineers. He was instrumental in the Gamecocks’ rapid rise to success, bringing in a transfer laden class and implementing a creative run game to make Jacksonville State a difficult opponent to take down.

The conductor of the offense is quarterback Zion Webb, who essentially won the job in mid-October after splitting in-game reps with Logan Smothers through the first half of the season. Webb is an established ground threat with 638 rushing yards and seven touchdowns during the year, exceeding the century mark as a rusher on four occasions.

Webb is supported in the backfield by a slew of options led by Malik Jackson. Jackson ranks first on the team with 860 yards and seven touchdowns on an impressive average of 6.5 per carry. Later in the season, Anwar Lewis became increasingly involved in the rushing game, posting 443 yards in the last eight contests alone. Those two should be the primary ball carriers, but this backfield runs deep with Ron Wiggins as a viable tertiary option. Jacksonville State prefers to keep things grounded and it’s a working formula, as five different ball carriers eclipsed the 280-yard rushing mark in the regular season and the run game is fifth nationally in average yardage.

When Webb passes in this RPO-based offense, it’s often downfield. The offense is heavily contingent on reading safeties, and when Webb likes what he sees, he’ll take frequent deep shots. Jacksonville State doesn’t pass too often, but Webb averages a remarkable 13.2 yards per completion. However, the risk-taking is evident in the stat sheet as the Gamecocks are sixth-to-last in the FBS with a 51.4 completion percentage. Perry Carter is the preferred downfield threat in a vertical passing game, collecting 34 receptions for a team-high 603 yards, while wide receiver Quinton Lane and tight end Sean Brown are among Webb’s other premier targets.

While the run game was stellar all year, the unit which propelled Jacksonville State to eight wins in its inaugural FBS season was the defense. This unit permitted just 20.3 points per game, fueled by a relentless run-stopping bunch which allowed 113 yards per game — good for 24th in the country. Seven of the Gamecocks’ 12 regular season opponents scored 20 points or fewer and six of those contests were wins, suggesting that a low-scoring game will favor Jacksonville State in New Orleans.

The personnel in the front seven is quite established. Defensive end Chris Hardie was the team’s lone First Team All-CUSA defender with 16 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks on the season. Outside linebacker Quae Drake is a can’t-miss force as well, racking up a team-high 86 tackles for one of the conference’s premier run-stopping units.

The secondary didn’t quite experience the same level of success in locking down the air, as Jacksonville State yielded 248 passing yards per game for a 110th overall ranking. However, where the Gamecocks lacked in that facet, they more than made up for with a high takeaway output. Jacksonville State is tied for third in the FBS in turnovers gained this year at 25, corralling 16 interceptions and recovering nine fumbles. The takeaways were a concerted effort as 13 different players intercepted a pass and seven different players recovered a fumble. Names to watch on the back-end that could cause some havoc Saturday are the safeties. Free safety Jeremiah Harris picked off two passes to complement his 58 tackles and strong safety Fred Perry proved to be one of the most brutal hitters on the team with 71 takedowns and three forced fumbles.


Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns outlook

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Louisiana at Minnesota
Louisiana RB Jacob Kibodi is the Ragin’ Cajuns leader for an offense that is 32nd nationally in rushing yards per game.
Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Louisiana (6-6, 3-5 Sun Belt) isn’t quite the Sun Belt dynasty it was in the Billy Napier era, but the Ragin’ Cajuns are back in bowl season for the sixth consecutive season — and bowling in their home state for the third-straight year. They also qualified for the postseason with six wins last year, yet still gave Houston a tight game in Shreveport, LA despite entering as considerable underdogs.

This year’s squad clinched eligibility in the final week with a blowout win over ULM. It was an up-and-down season for the Ragin’ Cajuns, where the highs included knocking off South Alabama by 13 points and edging Sun Belt riser Texas State, while the lows involved an overtime loss to 3-9 Southern Miss and falling by 20 to Arkansas State in their most lopsided defeat of the season.

Head coach Michael Desormeaux can cap his first winning season in year two at the helm by taking this game as underdogs. In order to do that, a successful rushing attack is almost a requirement. Louisiana ran the ball extraordinarily well this year, picking up 5.1 yards per carry and 183 rushing yards per game to rank 32nd as a unit. Seventh-year senior Jacob Kibodi was the driving force behind that excellence. The running back experienced a breakout season with 729 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on a 5.7 average, bullying defenders with a 6’1”, 225 pound frame. Kibodi is supported in the backfield by another powerful back in Dre’lyn Washington (5.8 yards per carry) and a speed-oriented threat in Zylan Perry.

The combo blends well together in an offense which relies on physical downhill running. But the run game took a turn for the better when led by quarterback Zeon Chriss who suffered a season-ending broken fibula in early November. Since the devastating injury, Chandler Fields took over at quarterback and turned the Ragin’ Cajuns into a more passing-oriented offense. Fields shined in his three starts this year, averaging 263 passing yards per game with seven touchdowns and just one interception.

In the passing game, Fields doesn’t have a preferred target. Rather, Louisiana is the ultimate “receiver by committee” team. Six different Ragin’ Cajuns have between 25 and 37 receptions for 225 to 473 yards this season. Jacob Bernard is the clubhouse leader in both receiving categories, but Peter LeBlanc and tight end Neal Johnson have similar production totals, so Jacksonville State can’t key on a specific target.

Louisiana scored at least 30 points in all six wins and also lost multiple games when exceeding 30 on the scoreboard. That being said, offense is the calling card of this team, so a stronger defensive showing will be needed Saturday to hoist a trophy.

Getting off the field on critical downs is an emphasis of this defense, which is tied for 86th in points allowed per game. The Ragin’ Cajuns were fourth-to-last in fourth down defense during the regular season with an opponent conversion percentage of 72 — and that was on a substantial sample size of 25 attempts. The third down defense was in the bottom 25 of the FBS at 44.9 percent.

Defending the run is typically the unit’s greatest heel, which isn’t ideal for playing a run-heavy team like Jacksonville State. And it’s going to be harder without outside linebacker Kendre’ Gant, one of the few portal entries on this team who racked up a loaded stat-line featuring 64 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, six sacks, three forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries. Key linebackers that must step up in his absence include inside backer K.C. Ossai, the team’s leading tackler, and Cameron Whitfield, who tied for the team-high with seven sacks to go along with 38 tackles and three forced fumbles.

As suggested by some of those sack numbers, Louisiana typically generates ample amounts of pressure, and the overall result is a solid pass defense which ranks 48th in yards allowed. This doesn’t come as in handy for a creative running team like Jacksonville State but the Ragin’ Cajuns present viable threats on the back end, including strong safety Tyree Skipper, who has 50 tackles and two interceptions on the year.


Prediction

Jacksonville State is mostly renowned for its defensive prowess, while Louisiana is more of a high-scoring power, which creates an interesting clash in Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl.

Both teams prefer to establish the offense through the ground and utilize a deep stable of running backs to do so. With Zeon Chriss out for the year, Louisiana lacks an extra dynamic runner in its backfield, but Jacksonville State has the luxury of a mobile quarterback with Zion Webb.

Although shorthanded at quarterback, Louisiana’s passing numbers have been up with Chandler Fields in the lineup. In order for the Ragin’ Cajuns to pull out a victory, they must take advantage of this matchup against the Jacksonville State secondary and establish much of their offense in an aerial fashion.

But in the end, the Gamecocks’ consistency on defense will be the difference maker, and they’ll emerge with their first bowl victory in a low-scoring bout.

Prediction: Jacksonville State 24, Louisiana 16