Ragin’ Cajuns Show Promise In Kentucky Loss
By Dan McDonald (Special to ESPN 1420)
The columns on the college football standings are pretty distinct.
They’re listed as “W” and “L”. There’s no column for “MV” or “ED”, no matter how well UL’s 40-33 setback at Kentucky on Saturday fits into the category of moral victory or encouraging defeat.
Ask the Ragin’ Cajun players. They’ll likely tell you that opening loss at the newly-renovated Commonwealth Stadium hurt more than any opener in recent memory, because this was a game they should have won.
Take away one of the three turnovers, a shaky start by the Cajun secondary, a key penalty during the host Wildcats’ final drive ... any number of similar chances, and the Cajuns are celebrating one of the biggest surprises of college football’s opening weekend and wiping the memories of a 1-61 record against current SEC members.
They’re also celebrating a win over a Power Five conference member, a “signature” regular-season win, the one thing missing from the UL resume’ since Mark Hudspeth revitalized the Cajun program five years ago.
The disappointment at not finishing the deal on Saturday will hang for a while. But Saturday also showed the potential of the current UL squad, one that had the most impressive debut among Sun Belt Conference members despite the loss. The only one close was Appalachian State’s 49-0 win over Howard, depending on if the Mountaineers were playing Moe Howard or Curly Howard.
The Cajuns trailed 21-0 in the first 17 seconds of the second quarter, and could have been headed down the same road as defending Sun Belt champ Georgia Southern (a 44-0 loss at West Virginia), New Mexico State (61-13 at Florida), Texas State (59-16 at Florida State), Arkansas State (55-6 at USC), Troy (49-21 at North Carolina State) or UL Monroe (51-14 at Georgia even though the last 10 minutes were fortunately cancelled due to weather).
They were on the same path as last year’s squad that was stunned 48-20 by Louisiana Tech at home and then fell 56-15 at Ole Miss, or the 2013 team that lost at Arkansas and Kansas State, or the 2011 and 2012 squads that were humbled by Oklahoma State.
Instead, they regrouped from a 33-10 deficit, and over the next 11 minutes scored three straight touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions to tie the game at 33.
To its credit, Kentucky drove for a winning score in the final four minutes, but even that drive needed a couple of key penalties on a visiting team that silenced the first UK sellout crowd in five seasons.
Kentucky may not be the elite of the SEC, having entered Saturday on a six-game loss streak and gong 5-7 last season. How much better UK will be this year remains a question mark, and judgment needs to be reserved until the Wildcats go through a September schedule that includes South Carolina, Florida and Missouri. And UK may not wind up the best non-conference team on the schedule, with UL going to face a solid La. Tech team on the first weekend of October.
But in Saturday’s case, the opponent doesn’t matter. The performance in Lexington was easily the best for a Hudspeth-coached team in a first test against a team that posed a legitimate threat (in other words, setting aside the 40-0 win over Lamar in 2012 and last year’s 45-6 win over Southern).
In fact, the narrow loss Saturday was probably the best opening performance since 2007 when the Cajuns played South Carolina in a relatively-even 28-14 game, or even back to 2003 when UL lost a 14-7 decision against those same Gamecocks.
The Cajuns went in without an established quarterback, with a completely-new defensive staff and defensive structure, without its best cover corner, and had their number two receiver threat and one of its top pass rushers on the sideline with injuries early ... and still were tied with an SEC team on the road with 60 seconds remaining.
Now UL has two straight home games, beginning with Northwestern State this weekend, and if the opening outing is a true barometer, they’ll come out of September with a 2-1 record. The Tech game in Ruston follows before the eight Sun Belt games. Based on the eye test around the Sun Belt from just one game, the Cajuns could be favored in at least seven of the eight (the Nov. 28 game at Appalachian State being the possible exception).
Yes, it’s early. Like new defensive coordinator Melvin Smith said about his unit, we won’t know much until after two or three games. But push aside the disappointment of a loss that could have been a landmark win, and there’s a lot to like about this UL team.