Special teams help Cajuns to historic start with upset of Iowa State
UL gets first road win against ranked opponent
AMES, Iowa — Louisiana head coach Billy Napier praised special teams coordinator Robby Discher after the Ragin’ Cajuns upset Iowa State on Saturday. Napier said he even got Discher to dance in front of the team during the postgame celebration in the locker room.
You’ll get that kind of treatment when your unit is largely responsible for the team’s first-ever road win against a ranked opponent.
The Ragin’ Cajuns were outgained 303-272 against the Cyclones. They missed two chip-shot field goals and had no running back rush for more than 50 yards.
But they still upset No. 25 Iowa State 31-14, in large part thanks to two special teams touchdowns: Chris Smith’s 95-yard kickoff return in the first quarter, and Eric Garror’s 83-yard punt return early in the fourth.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS:UL Ragin' Cajuns vs. Iowa State football: Video Highlights, score
“Both of those game-changing plays were well-thought-out conceptually,” Napier said. “We knew exactly what we were doing, how we were doing it. Those things were crafted very specific relative to our plan, and the players went and executed. And that’s Coach Discher’s reputation. He is a special teams guy. He completely comprehends and understands what’s happening out there.”
Of course, it helps to have dynamic playmakers on the field too.
Smith ran just about untouched on his score. He wove through Cyclone defenders and quickly got to the second level, where he only had to beat Iowa State kicker Eddie Ogamba.
After the game, Smith said the special teams unit noticed the Cyclones were overloading defenders on the back side on their first kickoff. So, on the second kickoff, Smith and his blockers schemed the play in the opposite direction — where there were plenty of holes to sprint through.
“We needed to get something going,” said Smith, UL’s No. 4 running back behind Elijah Mitchell, Trey Ragas and NFL Draft pick Raymond Calais Jr. last season.
“(My teammates) were like, ‘C’mon Chris, we need you, we need you.’ So they gave me a chance and I showed them what I can do. They don’t know too much about me, so that was my chance to show them, ‘I’m here. I’m ready.’ ”
That score tied the game 7-7 late in the first quarter.
Garror dealt the death blow with his 83-yard punt return that put the Ragin’ Cajuns up 24-14 early in the fourth quarter.
This technically isn’t the first time Garror has returned a punt for a touchdown in his college career.
But it is the first time that touchdown hasn’t been nixed due to a penalty.
“They kept calling mine back from last year,” Garror said, “so I had to come back and score this one and just get my name out there for the best punt returners in the country and just keep going from there.”
Napier said it’s important for his team to not dwell on this victory. Yes, it’s momentous for the program. It’s the Ragin’ Cajuns’ first win over a Power 5 opponent since it beat Kansas State exactly 11 years ago on Sept. 12, 2009. It’s their first win over a ranked opponent since it beat Texas A&M in 1996. And it’s their first road win ever against a ranked opponent. They had been 0-27 all-time against ranked opponents on the road.
But it’s also just one win. And conference play in the Sun Belt, which also saw Arkansas State beat Kansas State on Saturday, begins next Saturday for Louisiana at Georgia State.
Although it did miss two field goals, Louisiana’s special teams unit acted as a catalyst for the major upset on Saturday. It energized the team when its offense labored against a unique and tough Cyclones defense.
Napier will take 10 more performances like that in a heartbeat.
“It’s part of our culture to be really good on special teams,” Napier said. “I think it’s the first place you start when you talk about putting a football team together because that’s where you play with effort, physicality. You combine your offensive and defensive players, a lot of your walk-ons and second-tier players have roles on those teams.”
“Today was a team win, and I think that’s critical. We played together. All three phases contributed.”
Matthew Bain covers recruiting and pretty much anything else under the sports sun for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.
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