By Dan McDonald
Special for ESPN1420

Arkansas State’s defense was allowing only 2.4 yards per rush against Sun Belt Conference foes this year, and had been averaging eight tackles for negative yardage in that time.

UL’s defense, an inconsistent unit early in the season, was coming off its signature outing 10 days earlier, when the Ragin’ Cajuns held a solid Texas State offense to eight first downs and under 200 offensive yards until the final two minutes.

Many expected that Tuesday’s pivotal Sun Belt game at Cajun Field would hinge on one of the two defenses coming up with a similar effort.

Many were wrong, as were those who set betting lines and over-under figures.
The Cajun rushing attack went through the Red Wolves like the proverbial hot knife through butter, the two-edged blade of Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire searing the room-temperature margarine of ASU defenders for eight (count ‘em, eight) touchdowns between them.

UL’s defense was shaky at the start and again at the end, but got just enough stops in the middle of Tuesday’s four-hour ESPN2 telecast for the hosts to post a 55-40 win and take control of the controllable part of the Sun Belt race.

“Very proud of the offense, very proud of the way they prepared,” said Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth only minutes after the final horn of what became a “chippie” game in the second half. “We gave up a couple of long plays, but I tell you, give (ASU) credit, they had some plays that were tough for us to defend.”

The Red Wolves had four plays of 55 or more yards, and a total of 16 plays from scrimmage that went for double-digit yardage in their 595-yard offensive night. But on a night when the two teams combined for 1,116 yards and 95 points, the Cajuns had even more – 17 plays of 10 or more yards, eight plays of 20 or more and runs of 47, 74, 43 and 54 yards.

It looked like arena football, where often it takes only one or two defensive stops to decide a game. The Cajun squad got two key stops, both on ill-advised ASU decisions.

The first game a minute into the second quarter with UL already leading 13-9 and ASU facing a third-and-19 from its own 31. Red Wolves quarterback Fredi Knighten, who riddled the Cajun defense for 344 passing yards and three scores, tried to force a screen pass into a crowded area near the UL sideline and Corey Trim had an easy interception.

His 30-yard return to the ASU 1 set up Harris’ one-yard scoring burst, giving him his third touchdown in 16 minutes of playing time and giving UL a 20-9 lead.

The other major A-State gaffe came midway through the third quarter, at a time when both defenses seemed to settle down for a brief stretch. Again ASU was pinned deep, with a fourth-and-11 at its own eight-yard-line and in one of several punt formations that bedeviled the Cajun defense all evening.

This time, listed defensive end Chris Stone went in motion and cut off the snap back to punter Luke Ferguson and rolled out looking for a receiver. Eventually he threw back to a surprised Ferguson, who was tackled by Justin Hamilton for a loss of two yards back to the ASU 6. Harris scored two plays later to make it 41-23.

For the sake of full disclosure, I really like ASU head coach Blake Anderson. He’s a personable and sharp guy, something that was obvious even from the short one-year stint he served as Cajun offensive coordinator under Rickey Bustle. He’s also very creative and doesn’t mind going outside the box – all it takes is a look at the video of ASU’s fake punt against Miami this year that was right out of “The Walking Dead” to figure that out.
That’s why I hope Tuesday’s fake punt wasn’t his call. The Red Wolves had battled back from a 34-9 deficit to make it 34-23 and had momentum, having forced three straight punts from Cajun Daniel Cadona (himself an unheralded hero in the game). There were still 22 minutes in the game and the Wolves had already proven they were capable of scoring quickly.

Instead, the botched fake slowed that momentum, and McGuire did the rest when his four fourth-quarter carries resulted in 93 yards and two touchdowns.
McGuire finished with 265 yards on only 19 carries, a 13.9 average per play and more rush yards than any Cajun not named Brian Mitchell or Tyrell Fenroy. Harris posted 107 yards and also had four scores, giving the Cajuns two 100-yard rushers for the first time since UL and ASU met last year.

Credit, though, should go to the offensive line. UL had only four plays for negative yardage all evening, and two of those came in the final six minutes when the Cajuns were trying to milk a game clock that grew Halloween-style cobwebs throughout the game.
The length wasn’t that big a deal, since the 21,760 on hand on a work/school night and a national viewing audience that had no other football options were robustly entertained in what has become the Fun Belt’s most intense football rivalry.

The game featured two ejections, several unsportsmanlike conduct flags and back-and-forth jawing that intensified as the second half wore on. It came to a head on the final extra point after McGuire’s 54-yard run with only 54 seconds left provided the final score.

Junior Cajun lineman Mykhael Quave had to be helped off with a leg injury, and Cajun quarterback Terrance Broadway didn’t pull any punches in showing his displeasure. He was one of several players on both teams in a post-game on-field shouting match that could have deteriorated into much worse had police and game security not done an admirable job of keeping the teams separated.

“One of their guys, I don’t know who it was, dived into our starting left tackle,” Broadway said of Quave. “I don’t know what happened.”

ASU freshman Irving Adams was ejected on the play, but a video replay showed Adams not close to where Quave went down. It did, though show a Red Wolves player diving toward Quave’s legs on the extra point. The player was Frankie Jackson, a high school teammate of Broadway's.

“Those are my guys, and I feel like you disrespect and not play the game the right way, I feel like you should hear from me,” Broadway said. “They didn’t play the game the right way. That’s unfortunate they did that. A lot of our guys were very upset about the way the game ended and thought they had a little more class.”

No blows were ever thrown, and other than Quave, the most serious injury in the closing stages may have been UL radio network sideline reporter Steve Peloquin, who was run over by some angry Red Wolves and ended up on the turf. Peloquin couldn’t raise his arm after the game and the full extent of his injuries wasn’t immediately known.

The post-game near-dust-ups overshadowed the fact that the Cajuns are 3-0 in league play and on a three-game win streak, and now in control of what they can control in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern, which doesn’t play either UL or ASU in a fluke of scheduling, is 4-0 heading into a game with instate rival Georgia State this weekend (it’s worth noting that Georgia Southern isn’t bowl-eligible this season).

The 4-3 Cajuns need only two wins to reach bowl eligibility, and they will be favored in all five of their remaining games. South Alabama, the next opponent for Homecoming on Nov. 1, will be a stern test, as will instate rival UL Monroe, but the Cajuns will be prohibitive favorites in the other three games against New Mexico State, Appalachian State and Troy.

“This was a big win for us,” Hudspeth said at the late-night postgame media gathering. “We’re going to enjoy this one for about 24 hours, and then get back to work.”

Photo by Brad Kemp/ragincajuns.com