The 2023 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl — the second game of the 2023 postseason slate — featured a matchup between a bowl veteran and a bowl newcomer.
Louisiana participated in its sixth consecutive bowl game and its 11th in the last 13 years. And the Ragin’ Cajuns were no stranger to the grand stage of the Superdome. Saturday marked the seventh time Louisiana participated in the nearby New Orleans Bowl, appearing in the annual contest more than any other program.
But at the same, Jacksonville State made its first bowl appearance, period, in its inaugural season as an FBS program. That experience clearly didn’t matter in an overtime thriller in the Big Easy.
The Gamecocks took down the Ragin’ Cajuns, 34-31, in a back-and-forth barnburner which saw five second half leads, ending on Garrison Rippa’s 27-yard walk-off field goal in overtime. With its first bowl victory in program history, Rich Rodriguez and Jacksonville State capped off a Cinderella debut season. Due to their status as a first-year FBS program, the Gamecocks were originally barred from bowl season, but due to a lack of eligible teams, they snuck in and wound up with a win for the ages.
Jacksonville State and Louisiana never separated themselves by more than one possession. However, the Ragin’ Cajuns held the upper hand for the majority of the contest and Jacksonville State spent only six minutes of game clock in front. Things looked dreary for first-year Conference USA program when Louisiana strong safety Tyree Skipper intercepted a pass and returned it for a 43-yard pick six with 5:32 remaining. But trailing by seven, Jacksonville State didn’t flinch.
The Gamecocks matriculated down the field until reaching a critical 4th and 2 situation with under two minutes remaining. Louisiana dialed up an intense blitz, but Jacksonville State wide receiver Perry Carter blew past his defender in man coverage and snagged the tying touchdown with 1:46 to go, thus forcing overtime. Louisiana shanked its field goal on the first possession of the extra period, leaving the door ajar for Rippa to deliver the finishing blow.
Jacksonville State more than doubled Louisiana’s yardage with a considerable 526-247 advantage. But turnovers were the great equalizer at the Superdome. Louisiana won the turnover battle 4-0, but the Ragin’ Cajuns couldn’t move the sticks quite like Rodriguez’s team. In fact, Louisiana only scored one offensive touchdown. Less than two minutes into the game, cornerback Jalen Clark kicked off the scoring effort with a 46-yard fumble recovery. Later in that quarter, Clark reached paydirt once again on a 16-yard interception return. Then, Skipper’s fourth quarter pick-six provided the Ragin’ Cajuns their third and final defensive touchdown.
But Jacksonville State overcame those frequent miscues with an up-tempo, high-powered run game which produced 290 yards and three touchdowns on a whopping 74 attempts. It was the ultimate team effort, as the Gamecocks rotated between two quarterbacks — Zion Webb and Logan Smothers — and four different ball carriers earned at least 10 rushing attempts. Running back Ron Wiggins led the charge with 126 yards, and he scored a crucial touchdown just 23 seconds before halftime to knot the game at 14 apiece.
The Gamecocks were no stranger to gambling in a state well known for its casino presence, converting 5-of-6 fourth down attempts. Jacksonville State didn’t break away for long runs, but the team picked up small chunks at a steady pace, slowly wearing down the Louisiana defense.
The result of the assertive run game was a victory and a fervent celebration on the turf at the Superdome. While Louisiana (6-7, 3-5 Sun Belt) walked off with a rare New Orleans Bowl loss — falling to 5-2 in the bowl all-time, Jacksonville State (9-4, 6-2 CUSA) commenced a well-warranted party. The Gamecocks season was about overcoming every possible setback.
From overcoming the challenges of operating as a first-year FBS program to overcoming a bowl ban to overcoming four turnovers and three Louisiana defensive touchdowns, Jacksonville State took everything thrown at them and ended up with one of the most spectacular debut seasons in FBS history.