A Closer Look At The Ragin’ Cajuns Home Opener
by Dan McDonald (Special to Sports Radio ESPN 1420)
There really wasn’t much for Ragin’ Cajun players, coaches, fans and followers to complain about Saturday night during UL’s “workmanlike” 44-17 victory over Northwestern State.
The Cajuns had 547 yards of offense on only 51 plays and didn’t come close to a turnover. They only had two incomplete passes in the game, only one by starting quarterback Brooks Haack, and the seven completions accounted for 187 yards.
That’s 10.7 yards per rush and 26.7 yards per pass completion, if you want the figures.
That offense also scored every time it had the football, with the exception of one first-half punt (even that one was a 48-yarder by freshman Steven Coutts which went for a minus-one yard return), and a final drive that ended at the NSU 4 at the final horn when the Cajuns took a delay penalty rather than run a play. That punt, by the way, was the only time in the game that UL faced a fourth down.
Elijah McGuire scored five touchdowns, tying the school record for rushing TD’s held by Brian Mitchell and former backfield mate Alonzo Harris. The second came on a sizzling 88-yard run less than six minutes into the game, the third-longest rush in school history and the second-longest TD run.
Three other backs ran for 50 or more yards, that number including Haack, and the Cajuns had three plays the entire game that went for negative yardage.
“It was great to see Eli break a lot of good runs,” Haack said. “But that comes from great blocking up front. Our offensive line ... they had them pushed at least three or four yards off the ball.”
Defensively, the Cajuns did allow three scores, but stopped the Demons four other times inside UL territory. There were a few bumps along the way on the defensive side, but remember that UL is still learning a completely new defense, and consider the number of defenders who didn’t play for one reason or another.
“I thought we had a solid, solid effort,” head coach Mark Hudspeth said. “I told the team it wasn’t our greatest effort, but a solid effort.”
The effort was solid despite several players sidelined, most of whom will contribute this season – likely in two weeks, when UL gets back to action against improved Akron after an open date. Quarterback Jalen Nixon, who sparked the rally at Kentucky in the 40-33 opening loss in Lexington, sat out with a shoulder injury from that game. Receiver Al Riles, safety T. J. Worthy and linebacker Darzil Washington, all starters, didn’t play at all against NSU with injuries, and cornerback Simeon Thomas is still out with eligibility issues.
The latter three were known going into Saturday. It was a surprise that Nixon came out without pads during pregame warmups.
“He could’ve dressed tonight, probably could’ve played if we needed him in the run game,” Hudspeth said after the game. “He’s not ready to throw the ball yet, but there’s about a 100 percent chance he’ll back for the Akron game.”
The Cajuns didn’t need him on Saturday, with McGuire and his mates doing what they did. Only once last year did UL top Saturday’s 360-yard rush total.
“They’ve got that big offensive line and some really good backs,” said second-year Demon coach Jay Thomas. “That made our guys miss a couple of times in the gap. But we left some points out on the field, too.”
The Demons did roll up 369 yards and 21 first downs, but had trouble finishing drives. But at least some of that credit goes to the Cajun defense that put the “bend-but-don’t-break” cliche’ to good use. If that unit gets all its cogs back healthy and eligible, they’ll be a headache for Sun Belt Conference offenses later this season.
But on Saturday, it was the offense that shone in front of an announced crowd of 26,824 that looked like more. That unit had 13 “chunk” plays – plays of 10 or more yards rushing and 20 or more yards passing. Six of Haack’s seven completions went for 20 or more yards.
But it was McGuire who shone. He could have been inserted to get a sixth score early in the fourth quarter, but Hudspeth said that would have been greedy. The last of his 14 carries came with 6:16 left in the third period and went for a one-yard score.
“I just came out and played my game,” McGuire said, “and I was patient about it. I really get my confidence from the O-line. When they know it’s a running play, they told me, ‘Eli, let’s go.’ And I just said, ‘Y’all give me a good push and let me do the rest.”
With all the bumps and bruises, it’s probably a good thing that UL has its only “true” open date this weekend (they have a couple of Saturdays off later, but that’s due to mid-week games). It will help to have a more fully healthy squad to face Akron’s Zips, who are 0-2 but with losses to Oklahoma and Pitt. The Zips should get their first win this weekend against Savannah State, and they’re better than the team that currently ranks last in the country in scoring (10 points in two games).