Spotlight on Former Athlete: 1996 Football Team and Their Defeat of 25th Ranked Texas A&M, 29-22
History makers can relate to Cajuns' eye-catching start
By Bruce Brown
History is there for the taking, but you have to seize the opportunity when it comes along.
When the 2020 UL Ragin' Cajuns opened with a rousing, big-play sparked 31-14 victory at No. 23 Iowa State, it was the first road victory over a ranked team in school history.
How far can they go? Time will tell, but they followed the upset win with a 34-31 overtime comeback at Georgia State and the magic continued for a last-second 20-18 home victory over Georgia Southern to finish a perfect September.
While their chapter in history is unfinished, the 1996 Ragin' Cajuns set the bar high with a now legendary 29-22 victory over No. 25 Texas A&M before 38,783 delirious followers at Cajun Field.
That was the first time a Cajun squad had topped a ranked team, and the last time it happened anywhere since then.
They made history, planting their landmark 24 years ago before any of the current team was born.
Each Cajun player kept his own memory of that warm and humid night, just as the fans did.
“The memories are many,” said quarterback Jake Delhomme, the school's all-time passing leader, ex-NFL standout and Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame member. “I remember coming down the tunnel at Cajun Field and seeing all the people, the overflow crowd.
“I remember halftime in the locker room. Guys were cramping up. But we had momentum. We knew it was going to be a battle. Then, of course, after the game it was just pandemonium.”
“Was it realistic? Absolutely,” said linebacker Pat Brennan, who was among those getting IV's afterward. “The more we studied film, that just brought more confidence that we could do it.”
“He was looking at their offense,” Delhomme said with a chuckle. “Their Wrecking Crew defense was very talented. I think all 11 of them played in the NFL. It was early September, hot and humid. We wanted to move the ball and do our part.”
The Cajuns opened with a 55-21 loss at Florida, which won the 1996 national title, then had an open week to ponder the Aggies invasion.
“We had a really strong team,” Brennan said. “I thought we played really well at Florida. I heard it was the one game all year where Steve Spurrier didn't give a game ball. And we came out of that game healthy.”
“The open week helped the team,” Delhomme said. “Florida was really loaded, with quickness, size and strength. A&M wasn't as good, but it gave us an idea what we were up against.
“It was better than opening against an easy opponent. It definitely got you focused.”
So did assistant coach Gerald Broussard, who kept assuring the Cajuns that they were “going to shock the world.”
Then came the most ancitipated game night in Cajun history.
“I remember how noisy it was before the game running out of the tunnel,” said Brennan, a 1995 All-Big West choice whose father Jim was an all-conference Cajun in 1965 and '67.
“We executed our plan,” said Brennan. “We wanted to pack the box, put them in bad situations and cause turnovers. We got ahead 21-7 but we knew there was still a lot of work to be done.”
Turnovers and an opportunistic defense set the tone, forcing four interceptions and claiming four Aggie fumbles.
A&M's D'Andre Hardeman scored from a yard out for an early 7-0 lead. But the Cajuns' Damon Mason tied it with a 42-yard interception return. Charles Johnson then rumbled 17 yards with a fumble for a 14-7 edge.
Delhomme's offense mounted an impressive drive, capped by a 1-yard TD pass to tight end Cody Romero, and it was 21-7, Cajuns 9:58 before halftime.
Could Cajun fans dare hope? Would this be the one to erase those losses to Oklahoma State (21-20, 1986), Ole Miss (21-20, 1986), Alabama (24-17, 1989) and Auburn (25-24, 1992)?
Hold the phone.
Hardeman scored from 39 yards out, QB Brannon Stewart ran 46 yards for another TD, and a field goal put A&M ahead 22-21 at 7:58 of the third.
“At 22-21, you don't want to have any doubt in your mind that you can do it,” Dehomme said. “They were a good team. They were going to have their moments. The key is to keep moving forward.
“It was a matter of being in the moment. We had a 92-yard drive that demoralized the other team and gave the crowd a jolt of energy.”
Then the turnover derby resumed as Paul Cabble claimed his second fumble recovery to halt an Aggie advance and Britt Jackson swiped a pass and raced 30 yards to the south end zone for the deciding touchdown.
Delhomme hit Brandon Stokley for a two-point conversion and the Cajuns prevailed 29-22.
A&M outgained the Cajuns 399 yards to 248, but the Cajuns lost just one fumble and the defense converted three of eight turnovers into scores.
“We had to stay grounded,” said Brennan, a one-time Cajun ball boy. “It was all about execution.
“The crowd was big and noisy when I ran out of the tunnel and it was wild afterwards. I was so glad to be a part of it.”
The image remains vivid of Cajun fans marching up the end zone hill and out of the stadium carrying the goal posts – pure, joyful bedlam.
Some are convinced more such enjoyment is possible for the current Cajuns of coach Billy Napier.
“They had a great gameplan at Iowa State,” Brennan said. “I've been so impressed with the way they line up, execute and play hard. Before Napier, they would struggle lining up.
“They were ready to play, and it's really exciting to see.”
“I give the coaching staff a lot of credit,” Delhomme said. “Their focus is on developing players. The mental side is very impressive. It was a good win on the road.
“Then, the next week, they won at Georgia State, a pretty good team. They went in with a bull's eye on their backs, with an opportunity for a letdown. They had Covid-19 issues to deal with, too.
“They didn't play their best, but found a way to win. They're playing good football, and that's fun to see.”
Reminds you of a legendary night on the bayou a lifetime ago.
* * * * * * * Click here for the 1996 Football Photo Gallery. It contains three links to videos of the first and second halves and one highlight video of the 1996 season.
* * * * * * * Click here for the 2007-present chronological listings of the Spotlight on Former Athletes.