On November 21, 2011, the UL Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns accepted an invite to represent the Sun Belt Conference. Prior to the start of the 2011 season, the Ragin' Cajuns were expected to finish last in the Sun Belt Conference and be ranked last among the 120 FBS school. However, the Ragin' Cajuns team was a surprise and finished the regular season with a 8-4 record. The New Orleans Bowl marked UL Lafayette's first ever division I FBS bowl appearance and their first bowl appearance since the 1970 Grantland Rice Bowl. Because of UL Lafayette's close proximity to New Orleans, the New Orleans Bowl set an attendance record at 42,841.
On December 4, 2011, the San Diego State Aztecs accepted an invite to represent the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs entered the bowl with a record of 8–4. SDSU's season was helped by Ronnie Hillman, who rushed for 1,656 yards and 19 touchdowns. This marked SDSU's sixth bowl appearance and their second consecutive following the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl. The bowl game also marked the first time the Aztecs appeared back-to-back division I bowl games.
Neither team previously appeared in the New Orleans Bowl. The bowl game marked the first ever meeting between the two schools.
The Aztecs scored first with a 27-yard field goal from Abelardo Perez. The Ragin' Cajuns responded with a touchdown to make the score 6–3, after the point after was blocked. In the second quarter, the Ragin' Cajuns went up 13–3 when Darryl Surgent scored on an 87-yard punt return. Lafayette added to their lead when they scored a touchdown in the third quarter to go up 19–3 (the PAT failed). However, the Aztecs closed the deficit to two at the end of the third quarter with two San Diego State touchdown passes from quarterback Colin Lockett. Lockett's second touchdown pass capped off a seven-play, 99-yard drive.
Louisiana-Lafayette scored another touchdown in the fourth quarter to make it 26–17. The Aztecs responded with their own touchdown to make it 26–24 with 5:40 left. On their next possession, the Ragin' Cajuns marched towards the three-yard line but had to settle for a field goal with 2:09 left. The Aztecs then scored a touchdown to take the lead 30–29 with 35 seconds left. The Aztecs attempted go up by three points on a two-point conversion, but failed. With no timeouts left, Lafayette managed to get in range for a 55-yard field, before the Aztecs were called for an "illegal stemming" penalty, thus reducing the field goal range to 50-yard. Placekicker Brett Baer made the kick, sealing a 32–30 victory for the Ragin' Cajuns.
UL Lafayette's Blaine Gautier had 470 passing yards in the game, breaking the previous New Orleans Bowl record of 387 passing yards set in 2010. Gautier's performance in the bowl game also helped him finish the season with 2,958 yards passing and 23 touchdowns, breaking the previous school single-season record set by Jake Delhomme. Aztec running back Ronnie Hillman was limited to only 55 yards; Hillman had been averaging 138 yards per game coming into the New Orleans Bowl.
Prior to a 55-yard field goal attempt by the UL-Lafayette Cajuns with four seconds to go, an official called a five-yard "illegal stemming" penalty against the SDSU Aztecs to set up the Cajuns' 50-yard game-winning field goal. Following the game, Aztecs coach Rocky Long said it was a "phantom call," claiming that no one was moving on the Aztec's side.
However, replays clearly show the Aztec defender illegally moving.