Ragin’ Cajuns Left Wondering What Could Have Been
By Dan McDonald, McD Media (Special to Sports Radio ESPN 1420)
While a record-tying four other Sun Belt Conference teams were officially accepting bowl invitations Sunday afternoon, the UL football team was cleaning out lockers and turning in equipment.
While the rest of the 80 bowl-bound FBS teams found out their postseason destinations Sunday afternoon, the Ragin’ Cajuns found themselves among the 47 who will be sitting at home for the holidays.
After four straight nine-win seasons , four bowl invitations and four bowl wins – only Oregon and UL could claim that over the past four seasons – UL was left to wonder what could have been.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Four weeks ago, the Cajuns were on a streak of three Sun Belt wins in their first four league outings, with the only loss a competitive one at eventual league champion Arkansas State. They had come back from a 1-3 non-conference start to even up their record at 4-4.
All UL had to do was split its last four games to become bowl-eligible, and it was obvious by that time that every 6-6 team in the country was headed to a bowl. The Sun Belt had an all-time high four bowl tie-ins, and a Cajun program that had set attendance records at the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl was going to be coveted by several of those.
Instead, the Cajuns lost all four, three of them to teams with losing records and who will join them in the “inactive” group in the postseason.
“We just are not where we need to be right now as a program, as far as making plays and coaching,” head coach Mark Hudspeth said after an extended stay in the locker room Saturday night, following a 41-17 thrashing by a Troy team that also finished at 4-8.
The Cajuns also lost to a shaky New Mexico State team two weeks earlier, and to a South Alabama team that didn’t win again and lost three in a row to end the season. It says volumes that, in retrospect, UL’s best Sun Belt win was over a Georgia State team that is inexplicably headed to a bowl game.
“You’ve got some angry guys in there,” Hudspeth said after leaving the locker room. “They know what we’ve shown in the last few weeks is not who we are. We’re a better team than that. We’ve got to perform better, we’ve got to coach better ... and we’re anxious to accept that challenge.”
That challenge, to get back over the .500 mark, to the postseason and to competing for the Sun Belt title, is a big one judging by Saturday’s game. The Cajun defense watched almost helplessly as Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers hit all but six of his 28 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers would have been even higher, but Silvers had only one pass attempt in the game’s final 18 minutes.
Offensively, UL’s patchwork offensive line allowed four sacks and the squad barely topped the 100-yard rushing mark. The Cajuns also had four turnovers, while not coming close to forcing a turnover from the Trojans. In fact, with the 4-0 turnover deficit in the finale, the Cajuns finished the season forcing only 11 turnovers – six fumbles and five interceptions. Only three teams out of 127 had fewer (they all finished with 10).
“Never been a part of a team that didn’t get turnovers like this,” Hudspeth said.
There were precious few positives on Saturday, among them Elijah McGuire going over the 1,000-yard mark in season rushing and finishing with 1,047 yards for the seventh-best total in UL history. And redshirt freshman Jordan Davis, who was impressive on a final drive one week earlier against Appalachian State, took the great majority of the snaps at quarterback, finishing 20-of-34 passing for 207 yards and a score.
Davis showed flashes of athleticism, enough that he’ll likely go into spring practice working with the No. 1 offense. But that remains a question mark, one of several that the UL staff will have to find answers before next September when the Cajuns host Boise State and McNeese State in home games to open the 2016 season.
The offseason won’t be a fun one, and it’s already started. Hudspeth said that preparations for 2016 began Sunday morning, and don’t think the Cajuns won’t be reminded that their last outing ended up with the worst Sun Belt home loss since 2010.
“I’m hoping it’s going to give us a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” Hudspeth said. “We would’ve loved to win this last game going into the offseason with a little bit of momentum, but now we’re going to be able to use it as motivation to attack the offseason.”