UL vs. App State: Five things to watch as Cajuns play Mountaineers
We’ve talked this before in the space, and It will once again be a point of order for the Ragin' Cajuns. But this time, the team will be looking to continue its quick starts instead of focusing on simply generating a fast beginning to the game. In two of the last three ball games, the offense has scored touchdowns while the defense has yielded just three points while forcing a par of punts.
Starting fast will be important on both sides of the ball as Appalachian State is outscoring opponents 48-27 in the opening 15 minutes.
“Certainly, last time we played we did start fast, and that would be beneficial this week,” said UL head football coach Billy Napier. “It’s important each week that you do try to get off to a good start and create some momentum.”
Although Napier would welcome a fast start, he also expects Wednesday to be a 60-minute, four-quarter battle.
“Regardless of how it goes early, there’s going to be adversity," he said. "When you play a team as talented as this, there’s no question they’re going to make plays, on both sides of the ball and on special teams, too. And how we respond to that, I think, will be more important than maybe how we start.”
Sun Belt showdown:UL, Appalachian State football offenses clash
Protect the Ball
Turnovers are the one stat that teams most often point to after a close game, win or lose. That’s going to true Wednesday night as well for Louisiana and Appalachian State as the two teams battle for Sun Belt supremacy on national television. The Cajuns are minus-1 on the season, having given the ball to opponents nine times while only having eight takeaways.
The fumble has been the main culprit for UL, as seven of the nine Cajuns turnovers have come by putting the ball on the ground. Over the last two games, UL punt returner Eric Garror has muffed three punts, which were all recovered by the kicking team, setting up the opponent in positive field position and forcing the defense back on the field.
App State, meanwhile, leads the Sun Belt with a turnover margin of plus-5. The Mountaineers have seven takeaways and the teams only two turnovers have been interceptions thrown by quarterback Zac Thomas. With just the two turnovers, App State is tied second nationally for the fewest turnovers.
More:It's not just 'another game' for Cajuns, says Napier
The UL kick coverage team has been outstanding in 2019 and it will need to stay that way Wednesday night, but that could be a tall task. Kickoff specialist Kenneth Almendares has recorded touchbacks in 18 of his 35 kickoffs this season. And when opponents do return on of Almendares’ kicks they are averaging just 16.4 yards per return and an average field position of the 22-yard line.
However, Appalachian State running back Darrynton Evans is one of the most dangerous kick-return men in the country. Evans is averaging 30.7 yards per return this season and is second in the country with 176.3 all-purpose yards per game. The junior nearly returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Cajuns in the Inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game a season ago when he took the second-half kickoff 97-yards. Evans has one kick return for a touchdown this season.
More:Cajuns see Wednesday game as huge opportunity
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
Getting to the quarterback is always important, but the team that finds a way to pressure the opposing passer will increase its chances of walking away victorious Wednesday evening. But pressuring the quarterback will be no easy task, for either defensive front.
The UL offensive line, anchored by seniors Kevin Dotson and Robert Hunt has given up only five sacks, tops in the Sun Belt Conference. But the Mountaineers offensive line led by left tackle Victor Johnson has only surrendered six sacks, second in the league.
On defense, Louisiana and App State have both found a way to reach the opposing signal-caller. The Cajuns defense has recorded 12 sacks in five games; the Mountaineers have taken the quarterback down 11 times in four contests.
It remains to be seen, but if the Cajuns are to get defensive lineman Chauncey Manac back, it could a long way in helping the UL pass rush get to App State quarterback Zach Thomas. Manac left UL's win at Ohio in the second quarter and did not travel to Georgia Southern. He’s listed as day-to-day and Napier said Manac’s availability will be determined in pregame warm-ups.
More:UL's Chauncey Manac 'impacts every game he plays in'
Can the crowd give the Cajuns a home-field advantage? Napier and his team hope so. During his weekly press conference, Napier reminded fans of the impact his club felt a year ago playing twice at App State.
“There's no question that their fans made that a difficult place to play and we hope that our fans will do the same thing,” he said Monday.
In the two games the Cajuns have played at Cajun Field, attendance increased from 16,231 against Liberty to 18,183 the last the team played at home, a 77-6 rout of Texas Southern. In addition to the usual fan-friendly concession prices, the UL athletic administration is offering several drink specials, discounted tickets, and free parking.
More:UL hopes lower concession prices, season ticket incentives boost attendance
Column:Will Cajuns, Sun Belt ever pursue a regional approach?