Ragin’ Cajun Football Facing Familiar Challenge
By Dan McDonald, McD Media
For Sports Radio ESPN 1420
UL’s football team’s struggling with a 1-3 record, with a runaway win over an FCS squad followed by two lopsided and disappointing losses – one to an in-state rival and both to teams in “peer” conferences, leagues that Sun Belt Conference fans and followers hope and expect their teams to be competitive when they play outside the league.
Everyone’s disappointed. Players are angry, coaches are looking for solutions and fans are wondering if the recent run of success by the Ragin’ Cajuns is at an end.
But that’s enough talk about where things were last season ... 12 months ago.
UL coach Mark Hudspeth, only minutes after his team had fallen with a 43-14 thud to Louisiana Tech in Ruston on Saturday, said that his Cajun team had been here before. He’s right, and that’s both heartening and scary.
The only difference in the way this 2015 season has unfolded and its 2014 counterpart, is in the ordering of the games. The SEC opponent last year, Ole Miss, was dropped in between Tech and Boise State, a three-game set in which UL was outscored 138-44. This time, the prerequisite SEC foe came first, and the Cajuns more than showed their mettle in a 40-33 game that was tied with a minute left.
Heading into Sun Belt play last year, things looked in disarray with that 1-3 start, but those things slowly and steadily got better. A close win over a shaky Georgia State team provided a much-needed victory, and was a precursor to a series of solid performances that became a six-game win streak and insured the Cajuns of a third straight bowl invitation.
A disappointing performance in the home finale against Appalachian State cost the Cajuns a share of the Sun Belt title, but they still went 7-1 in league play and were headed to the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl for what became an NCAA-record-setting fourth straight win in that game.
Can that happen again? That’s the question that Cajun followers are asking.
The answer is an unquestioned yes ... with some caveats attached.
UL opens Sun Belt play next weekend in hosting Texas State, which will enter the game with statistically the worst defense in the country. The Bobcats have given up 59, 56 and 59 points to their three FBS opponents this year and are 127th (last) in the NCAA in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense. Texas State can score, ranking second in the Sun Belt and in the national top 20 in total offense, but even with those numbers they’re not as good offensively as the Tech team the Cajuns played Saturday.
(Given the choice, who would you rather have, Tech RB Kenneth Dixon and QB Jeff Driskel, or TSU counterparts Robert Low and Tyler Jones? Thought so.)
UL popped the Bobcats 34-10 last year (it was 34-3 with less than two minutes left) in San Marcos, and 48-24 two years ago (48-10 halfway through the fourth quarter) at Cajun Field.
If history is a guideline, the Cajuns should get what they desperately need next weekend, and after that they’ll face nothing but Sun Belt competition the rest of the way. The Sun Belt hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory through the season’s first month, and UL’s current struggles are not unique among league teams.
Defending champ Georgia Southern is 4-1, but victims Western Michigan, The Citadel, Idaho and ULM don’t make up much of a gauntlet and GS got drilled 44-0 by West Virginia in its opener (notably, the Cajuns don’t play Georgia Southern on the rotating schedule again this year). ApState is 3-1, but again the wins are over Howard, Old Dominion and a shockingly bad Wyoming team. UL goes to ApState in November, one of only two games the Cajuns don’t figure to be a betting-line favorite the rest of the way.
Arkansas State has two wins (Missouri State and Idaho) and nearly pulled off a big upset in a 27-20 home loss to Missouri. But the Red Wolves also lost 37-7 to Toledo two weeks ago. South Alabama is 3-2 and does have a decent win at San Diego State and Saturday’s win at Troy, but the Jags also got shelled at home 63-13 by North Carolina State two weeks ago.
Anyone else in the league, don’t bother looking. It’s painful to see for Sun Belt supporters. Georgia State managed to lose to Liberty at home on Saturday.
What all of these numbers, scores and results show is the Sun Belt is there for the taking, even by a Cajun squad that’s sputtering offensively, is still a work in progress defensively and is shaky on special teams.
But even as shaky as the Sun Belt has been so far, the Cajuns still have a lot of improving to do and a lot of questions to answer. The revolving door at quarterback isn’t working, the offensive front hasn’t been consistent with the exception of Mykhael Quave, the defensive front isn’t generating a solid pass rush and opposing receivers still find too many open spaces. Granted, UL’s last two foes have been strong defensively ... but the Cajuns made Akron look like an offensive machine and the Zips didn’t manage a touchdown on Saturday in losing to Ohio.
The two best teams UL will play all season are behind them (Kentucky and Tech). Every other game on the schedule is winnable, some with an average performance and some needing above-average.
That’s what history says. UL may be 4-12 now under Hudspeth against FBS non-conference foes after Saturday, but the Cajuns are also 24-7 in Sun Belt play over the past four years.
There’s a proverb about “making hay while the sun shines,” meaning that one should take advantage of the chance to do something good while conditions are good, or make the most of an opportunity while the chance is there. In this case, the Sun isn’t shining now and the Cajun chances to make hay are pretty good. But they better take advantage of it quickly.