Jones, Higgins stepped up for UL with key piece missing

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

The unit was missing a key piece.

But UL’s defensive line unlocked its full potential in a 53-3 win over Troy last Saturday anyway, recording five sacks and four hurries as the Trojans and quarterback Kaleb Barker desperately tried to play catch-up through the air.

The challenge will be different Saturday, when UL faces UL Monroe and dual-threat quarterback Caleb Evans at Cajun Field as the 9-2 Ragin’ Cajuns pursue a school-record 10th win in its regular-season finale.

While Troy leads the Sun Belt Conference in passing at 314.0 yards per game (3,454 total yards through the air this season, 1,682 on the ground) and Barker has thrown for a league-leading 3,347 yards, ULM has a much more even-keeled attacked (2,714 yards passing, 2,247 rushing) with the league’s No. 4 offense.

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Andre Jones started and played a big role in UL's 53-3 win over Troy last Saturday.

Running back Josh Johnson, a former Ole Miss signee, is the Sun Belt’s second-leading rusher at 108.1 yards per game, and Evans balances his third-leading passing numbers (237.5 yards per game) with 65.18 rushing yards per game.

“We’re going to have to do a good job this week of handling this rushing attack,” UL coach Billy Napier said, “whereas last week it was more about handing the simpler running attack and then really affecting the quarterback.

“It was kind of a one-dimensional game. It got out of hand, and became a throwing and catching type of game.”

At least the Cajuns can prep now knowing how well they held up Saturday with usual starting nose tackle and third-leading tackler Zi’Yon Hill out due to a shoulder injury that could require postseason surgery.

Without Hill, redshirt sophomore Andre Landry — injured and on the scout team earlier in the year — appeared in his second game of the season and made a tackle.

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“Landry is a guy who has gotten more snaps and more opportunities due to the injuries that we’ve had,” Napier said with reference to the Acadiana High product and converted tight end who made his season debut in UL’s win at South Alabama earlier this month.

The Cajuns really did turn to their depth, as reserves Kendall Wilkerson, Terrence Jones and Malcom Rollins all had a tackle each in the blowout win over Troy too.

Usual starter Bennie Higgins, meanwhile, opened in Hill’s spot at nose.

And Chauncey Manac and Andre Jones, who have split starts at one end position throughout the season, both started, with Jones sliding into Higgins’ usual spot on the line while Higgins covered for Hill.

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UL's Andre Jones (50), shown here along with Jourdan Quibodeaux (43) making a stop in a win over Texas Southern earlier this year, stepped up with injured Zi'Yon Hill out against Troy.

Jones responded with two hurries and three tackles including a sack.

“That’s what you dream of,” Jones said of getting behind the line so often. “That’s what you play for.”

Linebacker Jourdan Quibodeaux and Jack outside linebacker/standup defensive end Joe Dillon also both had a sack, while Manac and Ja’len Johnson were credited with half-a-sack each.

Ja-Quane Nelson, a junior-college transfer who began his college career redshirting at East Carolina, led all UL d-linemen with five total tackles.

“We missed Zi’Yon,” Manac said with reference to Hill, who could return later this season, but whose status for Saturday’s game against ULM is uncertain.

“But the guys … stepped up and they played their role and did what they had to do for us to get the win.”

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That especially was the case for Jones, who has emerged as UL’s fifth leading tackler this season with 36 including a team-high 7.0 tackles for loss matched only by Dillon.

“I play end on the outside, so we just game-planned,” said Jones, a Varnado High product who played as a reserve early in his Cajun career.

“Bennie Higgins, he played nose; so when he got tired, I’ll go at nose on pass-rushing packages, help him out right there. I’m kind of quick on the inside, so it didn’t really affect me.”

But the Cajun d-line did affect Troy’s offense in a big way, and Higgins was another huge reason why as the Trojans were limited to 359 yards of total offense — well below their average of 466.9 yards per game, which ranks second in the Sun Belt behind UL’s 498.4.

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He recorded only one tackle assist but used his experience and wisdom to help younger Cajuns deal with Hill being unavailable.

“I would say Bennie Higgins in particular did a good job from a leadership perspective,” Napier said of how UL handled Hill’s absence, “and then he played well within the game.

“I thought he did a good job of creating some pass rush, (transitioning) to a pass rush quickly on some of the stuff.

“He played well,” Napier added, “and he did a good job throughout the week of kind of setting the tone and making sure those other guys were doing what they’re supposed to do.”

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