Halfway home: 3-3 Cajuns figured they would be 5-1 now

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

Compare the accomplishments to the anticipation, and it is evident that at the halfway point of its 2017 regular season the UL football team is not where it wants to be.

The Ragin' Cajuns, 3-3 in the first half of 2017, take the field for the season-opening win over Southeastern Louisiana last month at Cajun Field.

But it could be much worse.

Rebounding from a 1-3 start with back-to-back wins at Idaho and last Thursday night over Texas State, the Ragin’ Cajuns are sitting at .500.

And as Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth sees it, there is reason to suspect better times are ahead.

“As far as meeting our expectations,” he said, “we didn’t meet ’em.

“We really felt like at this time we could be 5-1. And, looking back, if we played defensively the way we played the last two weeks, yeah, I think you could legitimately say that we could, could, be 5-1 right now.

“But the point of the matter is we’re not,” Hudspeth said. “We’re 3-3. But we’re a game better than we were at this point last year.”

Breakdown:Big defensive plays help Cajuns pull away from Texas State

The Cajuns, who visit Arkansas State in an ESPNU-televised game Thursday night, indeed won four of their final six regular-season games last season to become bowl-eligible for the fifth time in six years.

They wound up making another New Orleans Bowl appearance, but finished 6-7 after falling to Southern Mississippi for their first loss in the same game during that six-season span.

Now they feel another postseason run is in reach, and it’s in large part because of their play on defense.

UL opened with a close-call 51-48 home win over FCS Southeastern Louisiana, which rolled up 514 yards of total offense, then followed that with a 66-42 loss at Tulsa in which the Cajun offense put up 596 yards but the defense yielded a whopping 667.

One week later, in what perhaps was that anticipated probable loss in the season’s first half, UL led Texas A & M 21-14 at halftime only to fall, after then-starting quarterback Jordan Davis hurt his left knee, 45-21 in College Station.

The issues for the defense continued in a 56-50 double-overtime loss to UL Monroe, with the Cajuns allowing another 593 yards.

At that point, UL was allowing 53.8 points per game – most in the country – and only two FBS teams nationally were giving up more yards than coordinator Mike Lucas’ defense.

But since then changes were made and – perhaps the reason Hudspeth believes there is a bona fide chance to continue the turnaround – improvement has been abundant.

Former defensive coordinator James Willis returned as an analyst to work with Lucas and recommend alterations.

Related column:UL's Willis shouldn't worry about feelings

More:Streak snapped, Cajuns think they can reel off some wins

Joe Dillon moved back from the Will insider spot to his usual position at Buck defensive end, and it paid huge dividends.

UL’s front four – including starters Dillon, Taboris Lee, Kevon Perry and Trev Miller – were unleashed and allowed to play much more aggressively, and the attack approach helped everyone behind them.

“We actually corrected all the miscues and misalignments,” senior Rover Tracy Walker said, “so that’s one of the main reasons we’re having a lot of success right now.”

On offense, the big blow is the loss of backup true freshman running back Elijah Mitchell following a season-ending foot injury sustained at Idaho.

The big change had juco-transfer Andre Nunez taking over at quarterback in place of an initially still-injured and later healthy-but-ineffective Davis.

More:With UL's Mitchell out for the year, can Ragas hold up?

Hudspeth on Cajuns QB Nunez:'A pretty cool cucumber'

More:Cajuns beat Texas State, but Hudspeth has QB call to make

It didn’t pay right away, as Nunez helped to rally UL from 21 points down in the fourth quarter against ULM but ultimately the Warhawks got it done in overtime.

But Nunez replaced Davis after two series at Idaho, and the Cajuns snapped their three-game losing streak with a 21-16 win.

Before facing the Vandals, senior Mike linebacker T.J. Posey had a sense good things were on the horizon.

The inspiration, Posey suggested, was a motivational video from team chaplain Eric Treuil, who according to Hudspeth suggested delivered a reap-what-you-sow reminder focused on the value of hard work.

“It started from there,” Posey said between the Idaho and Texas State games. “And Coach Hud (Hudspeth) – he kind of went back to the old Coach Hud.

“When we walked in, and we bussed up to the Idaho stadium, you could tell everybody had this (attitude of), like, ‘Okay, we’re fixin’ to go in here and get this done.’

“From stretch and all that to the ball getting kicked off, we had this type of mentality like we were just gonna go win,” Posey added. “So, I feel like the mentality changed – that we’ve got something to prove in the Sun Belt (Conference). That was the big thing.”

UL to ESPN:We're Cajuns, not leopards or wildcats

UL followed the ULM victory with the one over Texas State, a 24-7 win in which Nunez threw for 232 yards, Keenan Barnes had 99 receiving yards including a 50-yarder and an 8-yard touchdown and starting running back Trey Ragas rushed for 72 yards and two touchdowns.

The defense did its job, including three turnovers – a key interception at the end zone by Walker with UL up just 14-0 late in the first half, a Bennie Higgins-forced Damar’ren Mitchell fumble recovery and a sack and fumble recovery by Chaiziere Malbrue – on a night UL’s offense had none.

The Cajuns also got an early fourth-and-1 stop in which Lee helped clog up the middle and Posey got behind the line to make the stop, and a team-high seven tackles including six solos from cornerback Simeon Thomas.

UL’s special teams got into the act too, with punter Sam Geraci dropping four of his six punts inside the 15-yard line and kicker Stevie Artigue making his only field-goal try while going 3-of-3 on PATs.

Now the Cajuns are smack-dab back in the Sun Belt race, emboldened not only by their 2-1 league record but also the fact a Troy team that upset LSU earlier this season was knocked off by South Alabama last Wednesday night.

“Anybody in this conference can beat anyone,” Hudspeth said when asked about Troy’s loss.

Related:Being 'unselfish' is the key for Cajuns receiving corps

It’s a reality to be remembered as UL embarks on a second-half slate that opens with three in a row on the road, first at SBC-foe Arkansas State followed – after a lengthy break – by visits in-conference to South Alabama on Nov. 4 and out-of-conference to Ole Miss on Nov. 11.

The Cajuns, they readily acknowledge, learned that lesson the hard way with one of their first-half losses.

“We know for a fact just off the Monroe game that we can’t take anybody lightly,” Walker said. “We kind of took them lightly, and they came in here and they snuck a win on us.”

After facing their second SEC opponent of the season, Ole Miss, UL closes with home games Nov. 18 against New Mexico State and Nov. 25 against Georgia Southern followed by a regular-season finale Dec. 2 at Appalachian State.

By the time the Cajuns visit the mountains of North Carolina, yet another bowl bid – if Hudspeth has his way – could be on the line.

UL needs to win three of last six to get it, and the Cajuns coach thinks it’s doable.

But, perhaps reminded by an expected 5-1 start that came up two wins short of being realized, he knows it’s no small task.

Only time, and especially whatever momentum is generated or slowed by UL’s next three-game stretch, will tell if it really can be done.

“Hopefully we can build on the success,” Hudspeth said.

“But it’s still one game at a time, it’s still a lot of work left to be done,” he added. “We’re gonna have to play awfully well for the rest of these games.”