NCF Nation: Colin Lockett

That's as good as it gets during bowl season. Dramatic comebacks from both teams and a final-second field goal blew the roof off the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans as the Ragin' Cajuns gutted out the victory. Here's how it all went down:

Turning point (1): With 1:40 remaining, on fourth-and-2 from his own 39-yard line, SDSU quarterback Ryan Lindley threw an incomplete pass, but pass interference kept the drive alive, and nine plays later, Lindley connected with Colin Lockett on a 12-yard touchdown pass to put the Aztecs ahead with 35 seconds to play. Game over, right?

Turning point (2): The failed two-point conversion left ULL with a small window of hope. Quarterback Blaine Gautier moved his team from the 18 to the SDSU 43, setting up a 55-yard game-winning field goal attempt from Brett Baer. But a defensive penalty moved the kick from 55 to 50 yards, and Baer drilled it as time expired. Now, it's game over.

Stat of the game: Ronnie Hillman's 55 yards. The Ragin' Cajuns were determined to make sure the San Diego State running back wasn't the deciding factor. They kept Hillman, who entered averaging 138 yards per game, to just 32 yards in the first half and just 2.3 yards per carry for the game.

Player of the game: Gautier was beat up, bruised, battered and smacked around all game. But he hung in there and took every shot -- passing for 469 yards and three touchdowns. He was poised on third downs and calm on the game-winning drive.

Unsung hero of the game: Darryl Surgent had only three catches for ULL, but he came up big in the fourth quarter with a 56-yard reception and a total of three catches for 92 yards -- an average of 30.7 yards per catch. Oh yeah, he also had that 87-yard punt return for a touchdown.

What it means: Preseason predictions be damned. The Ragin' Cajuns were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt conference, and some publications had ULL ranked 120th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. But a 9-4 record, capped by a victory over a team that will eventually play in the Big East, is a significant accomplishment for this program.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

December, 4, 2011
San Diego State Aztecs (8-4) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (8-4)

Dec. 17, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

San Diego State take from college football blogger Kevin Gemmell: The Aztecs are going to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1966-67. Last season, Brady Hoke led the Aztecs to an 8-4 record before they throttled Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. Defensive coordinator-turned-head coach Rocky Long matched that record as the Aztecs overcame a 21-point deficit in their season finale to top Fresno State.

Quarterback Ryan Lindley's numbers are down a bit, but that's to be expected when your top two receivers from last season are drafted into the NFL. So the Aztecs have been relying on Ronnie Hillman, one of the nation's top running backs, who rushed for 1,656 yards this season and 19 touchdowns.

With injuries to the receiving corps -- the Aztecs lost three potential starters before the season even started -- converted defensive back Colin Lockett has stepped in as the top receiving threat, tallying 46 catches and five touchdowns on the season. Tight end Gavin Escobar leads the team with seven touchdown catches.

The offensive line, which returns four starters from last season, is one of the best in the country, ranking 10th nationally in sacks allowed.

Linebacker Miles Burris is a bona fide play-maker who should be playing on Sundays next season. Defensive lineman Jerome Long is having an outstanding season, as is defensive back Larry Parker, who leads the Mountain West Conference and is tied for third nationally with seven interceptions.

Louisiana Lafayette take by Matt Fortuna: First-year head coach Mark Hudspeth began his campaign with the Ragin' Cajuns with a bang. Their 6-1 start was the best in Sun Belt history and followed a 3-9 campaign from a season ago. Two losses to end the season tempered that a bit, but the season still showed much progress.

Hudspeth replaced starting quarterback Chris Masson with Blaine Gautier, and Gautier delivered by throwing for 2,488 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Gautier has passed for 300 or more yards in a game four times this season. His 20 touchdowns this season are tied with Jake Delhomme for most in school history in one season.

Five true freshmen have started for the Cajuns, both running backs are first-year players and receiver Harry Peoples and safety Jemarlous Moten have been impact junior-college transfers. Moten earned conference defensive player of the week honors in the regular-season finale, recording two interceptions and returning one for a score, the team's seventh pick-six of the season, tying an NCAA single-season record set by Tennessee in 1971.
Introducing the 3-3-5 defense can present many challenges, especially if the personnel isn’t available to execute it properly.

San Diego State found that out last season and had a 4-8 campaign to show for it.

That’s why coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Rocky Long took a special interest in the defense this past spring. It wasn’t just about being faster or more physical, though those aspects were addressed, it was about putting the right players in the right positions to allow the defense to reach its potential.

He moved Ernie Lawson, who was second on the team in tackles for loss last season, from inside tackle to left end and moved Jerome Long, who he thinks has potential for a big year, to defensive tackle.

“Besides the guys knowing the defense and the different reactions that are made on the run, I think we helped ourselves by moving Ernie Lawson, who played the inside tackle for us to our left end,” Hoke said. “And being able to do that made us a much more solid, stouter front.”

But San Diego State also needed to find a quality stopgap in the middle of the defense. The Aztecs defense allowed 382 yards and more than 30 points per game in Hoke's first season as head coach. They allowed 38 points to BYU and Utah and 55 points to TCU.

So, the Aztecs took linebacker Andrew Preston and made him the coveted "Aztec," a hybrid position that is often the best player on the field. When Long implemented the 3-3-5 defensive system at New Mexico, Brian Urlacher made a name for himself in the “Lobo” hybrid position.

“I think Andrew makes us a better football team defensively because he’s a good playmaker,” Hoke said. “He’s a physical presence and in that position you have to have a guy who can be a little bit of a linebacker and a little bit of a strong safety type, and he really had a great spring doing that.”

During San Diego State’s spring game, Preston had five tackles, an interception and a sack, and helped the defense stifle the Aztec offense throughout most of the game. The defense forced 13 punts, two turnovers, eight sacks and just three points after both teams scored quick touchdowns to open the game.

Hoke said he’s also counting on the play of several secondary members that redshirted last season so they could get bigger and more physical. Hoke expects players such as Nat Berhe, Gabe Lemon, Marcus Andrews, Colin Lockett, Khalid Stevens, and Eric Pinkins to make a big impact on the field in 2010.

“I think the other thing that really helped us is that we redshirted four guys in the secondary a year ago,” Hoke said. “They bring something to our team that we didn’t have and that’s that they love to hit. They’re a physical bunch and a competitive bunch and that’s made us a better football team.”