53F Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, LA
San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman may not receive as much recognition as the nation's other premier running backs, but he'll receive plenty of attention from Louisiana-Lafayette's defense.
Hillman and the Aztecs take on the Ragin' Cajuns, who are making their first postseason appearance in 41 years, on Saturday night in the New Orleans Bowl at the Superdome.
Hillman finished third this season in the FBS with 138.0 rushing yards per game, amassing 370 yards in San Diego State's final two contests. The sophomore had four touchdowns in a 35-28 win over Fresno State on Dec. 3 despite playing with a high ankle sprain.
"He's a force," quarterback Ryan Lindley said. "He does some amazing things when you put the ball in his hands. I think he is just a guy that is plain dangerous."
Hillman, who has 19 rushing touchdowns this season, has run for 3,188 yards with the Aztecs (8-4). The sophomore's 1,656 yards this season surpassed Marshall Faulk for second place in school history in a single season, and Hillman is 187 yards shy of George Jones' school record set in 1995.
His impact on San Diego State is clear. The Aztecs are 12-2 when Hillman rushes for at least 110 yards. He ran for 228 and totaled four touchdowns in San Diego State's 35-14 win over Navy in last year's Poinsettia Bowl.
"They've got one of the most talented backs that we'll face this year," Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. "Our goal is to stop the run first. That to me is what they do the best. ... We'll have to play well up front and be physical because he's a guy that has hurt a lot of teams so far."
He isn't the only threat San Diego State has, though. While not the most accurate passer, Lindley is not afraid to throw the ball. He has 398 passing attempts - 33rd in the FBS - including 120 in the last three games.
The senior quarterback is a 55.4-percent career passer and completed a career-low 52.5 percent this season. However, he did throw for 2,740 yards and 20 touchdowns with just eight interceptions.
Lindley has set school records in career yards (12,277), passing touchdowns (87) and completions (933).
Lindley was also instrumental in San Diego State's first bowl victory since 1969 last season, completing 18 of 23 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns versus the Midshipmen.
Hillman and Lindley have helped lead the Aztecs to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in the program's FBS history. In 1966 and '67, they competed in the Camellia Bowl as part of the College Division.
While San Diego State may not have much fan support, playing just a few hours outside of the Ragin' Cajuns' campus, that may be the only advantage Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4) has.
The Ragin' Cajuns are giving up 29.8 points and 393.2 yards per game. The extra preparation time may help, however, as some of the team's worst defensive performances came in the second half of the season. The Ragin' Cajuns surrendered 34.4 points and 453.8 yards of offense in the final five games, including 494 yards in a 45-37 loss at Arizona on Nov. 26.
While Louisiana-Lafayette may be an underdog, the team has good reason to consider this season a success. After going 3-9 in 2010, the Ragin' Cajuns made an impressive turnaround in Hudspeth's first season, starting 8-2 before season-ending back-to-back losses.
Hudspeth was linked to the coaching vacancy at Mississippi, but said earlier this month he would remain with Louisiana-Lafayette after guiding the program to its first bowl appearance since losing to Tennessee State in the Grantland Rice Bowl in 1970.
Its only other postseason appearance was a 24-7 victory over Arkansas A&M in the 1944 Oil Bowl.
The Ragin' Cajuns may not be as deep as the Aztecs, but they have a credible threat in quarterback Blaine Gautier, who has thrown for 2,488 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. He completed a career-best 63.2 percent of his passes this season.
Gautier's favorite target is junior receiver Javone Lawson, who had 899 yards receiving and six touchdowns. Senior tight end Ladarius Green had 485 yards and seven touchdowns.
"They are very skilled," San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. "They've got really good speed, they're very physical and it's going to be a great football game."
This is the first meeting between the two programs.