UL more focused on Sun Belt title than bowl-eligibility
After opening 5-2, and now 6-2 with a homecoming win over Texas State, what UL accomplished Saturday night was almost an assumed afterthought.
Becoming bowl-eligible, and doing it in just eight games?
“I would hope at some point that would just become a given,” said coach Billy Napier, whose Ragin’ Cajuns are now bowl-eligible for a second straight season under his command for the seventh time in nine seasons since 2011.
Even at this point, in fact, Napier suggested, bowl-eligibility is far down on UL’s list of preseason aspirations – merely, as he called it, “a little bit of a box that we checked.”
More:Cajuns dominate defensively to beat Texas State big
“We do have bigger ambitions than that,” he said. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t go to a bowl game here every year.”
His Cajuns have bought in to that way of thinking.
Higher on the priority list is winning the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division, playing in the Sun Belt title and doing what it did not last season.
“Being bowl-eligible is big – but we really want that Sun Belt championship,” safety Bralen Trahan said after the Cajuns beat the Bobcats 31-3.
It’s with that in mind that Napier had plenty to harp on Saturday night.
That list opens with a slow start for UL’s ground game, which was ranked third in the country in yards per game going into the night.
Related:Cajuns running backs trio really is scary
The Cajuns ended up rushing for 292 yards, including Elijah Mitchell’s 126 and one touchdown, improving on their average of 262.2.
They’re now at 288.0, and still third behind Navy (357.9) and Air Force (323.1) while just ahead of Ohio State (284.3) and Boston College (282.3), Clemson (272.4) and fellow Sun Belt-member Georgia Southern (269.3).
But UL’s 145 rushing yards at halftime did not sit well with Napier, perhaps because the Cajuns – missing injured running back Trey Ragas and right tackle Robert Hunt – did nothing with their first three drives and led just 10-3 at halftime.
A 21-point third quarter helped sooth the sore, as did UL’s improved running after the break.
“It needed to be different,” Napier said. “I don’t think anybody was happy with the way it looked in the first half."
More:Cajuns get commitment from Tennessee recruit Johnson
He similarly was displeased with 12 penalties for 128 yards.
There were a couple false start on offense, and a few facemask penalties.
The ones that got more under skin were those that where self-inflicted, from roughing the passer and a late hit out of bounds to an offsetting unsportsmanlike call.
“I think we have to play with a little more poise and make better decisions when we get in those situations,” Napier said.
“I think a lot of the miscues and lack of execution are things that we can control.
“The good thing is I thought we played with good effort. I thought we played physical,” he added. “And we executed, for the most part, outside of a handful of possessions, throughout the day.”
More:Cajuns coach pleased with consistently good defense
So not all after a 28-point win focused on what went wrong.
While Napier said “certainly maybe sputtered at times,” he balanced that with “I view it (as) we got the win.”
“It’s perspective, right?” he said. “You can view it a lot of different ways.”
The positivity centered on taking care of business yet again.
Any negativity, and the continuation of Napier’s long-running ‘work-in-progress’ theme, is driven by the reality that there’s much more work to be done if UL is to get back to the championship game and realize an opportunity to make amends for last season’s title-chance loss at Appalachian State.
That starts with an abbreviated-week, ESPNU-televised visit to Coastal Carolina on Thursday night.
“Our next opponent is Coastal,” said cornerback Michael Jacquet III, who liked Trahan had an interception Saturday. “That’s all we can focus on.
“We’re not worrying about what’s going on down the line, what’s happening on the other side of the conference.”
Yet they have to be well-aware of the whole league picture, from Georgia Southern’s upset of then-No. 20 Appalachian State in a midweek game Thursday to Coastal’s 36-35 win over Troy and a 48-41 Arkansas State victory over UL Monroe that put UL alone into first place in the Sun Belt West at 3-1.
More:Appalachian State on UL minds
Arkansas State is now 3-2 and ULM 2-2.
Appalachian State leads the East at 4-1, with both Georgia Southern and Georgia State 3-1 – and Georgia State still yet to play either.
Details notwithstanding, UL’s season now boils down to having to win the Sun Belt title game in order to make its sixth New Orleans Bowl appearance since 2011.
Otherwise the Cajuns, who lost to Tulane last season at Cure Bowl in Orlando, will go bowling elsewhere, perhaps in Mobile, someplace they’ve never played a postseason game.
All that, though, is for another day.
More:Schools paint the town red for UL Homecoming Week