Ragin' Cajuns 'come back down to earth' after upset win
Levi Lewi connected with Peter LeBlanc on a deep ball for one touchdown.
Chris Smith returned a kickoff for another, and Eric Garror scored with a punt return.
The UL defense disrupted star quarterback Brock Purdy, with Asjlin “A.J.” Washington picking off one pass, Percy Butler breaking up two others while recovering a fumble he forced himself, Kam Pedescleaux making a couple stops behind the line of scrimmage and inside linebackers Lorenzo McCaskill, Ferrod Gardner and Kris Moncrief combining for 24 total tackles.
In the ninth month of a year in which so much has gone so wrong – the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the passing of assistant coach D.J. Looney following a heart attack during mini-camp, issues of social injustice, a Category 4 hurricane that brought devastation to the nearby Lake Charles area – the Ragin’ Cajuns have started 2020 right.
And to show for it they finally have their first road win over a nationally ranked team, having beaten No. 25 Iowa State 31-14 on Saturday in Ames, Iowa. The victory vaulted the Cajuns into a No. 21 national ranking in the Amway Coaches poll and a No. 19 spot in the AP writers Top 25.
“It’s been a heck of a journey, man,” UL head coach Billy Napier said Saturday after his first win over Power 5 program – he had three other tries, and one against then-No. 1 Alabama in 2018 and two against Mississippi State – since taking over as head coach of the Cajuns.
Yet now, with the start of Sun Belt Conference play right around the corner Saturday morning in an ESPN2-televised game against Georgia State in Atlanta, it’s back to reality.
“But I do think it’s important (to remember) that we made a lot of mistakes today,” Napier, after much praise for what his program accomplished, said of the need to keep things in perspective.
Napier said it would be okay for the Cajuns to take Saturday night to “enjoy it.” But he also said Sunday would be time “come back down to earth.”
What Napier did not say was that Sunday would be time, perhaps, to remember that UL’s highly hyped ground game, sixth-best in the nation a season ago, was limited to 118 yards by the Big 12’s Cyclones.
That neither Elijah Mitchell nor Trey Ragas, each with 1,000-plus-year rushing season under their belt, managed more than 50 yards, as Mitchell was held to 46 on eight carries (including a long of 19) and Ragas to 49 (including a long of 15) and a late touchdown.
That Smith, his 95-yard kickoff return noted, had only 25 yards on eight carries and wasn’t able to break one for more than 9 yards.
That kicker Nate Snyder was off the mark on 2 of 3 field goal attempts, missing one from 27 yards and another from 30.
The Cajuns coach did, however, suggest – in very non-specific terms – that there are things to clean up.
“This is just part of the journey,” Napier said.
“You know, nobody’s gonna care, if you go lose a couple here over the next couple weeks, (about) what happened (Saturday).”
So the many wins within the singular victory were worthy of a salute from Napier even as he put out a call for more.
And there were plenty.
Like the kickoff return, and the punt return and fact the Cajuns had no turnovers of the own.
Like the better second half UL’s offense had.
“Come halftime we adjusted to some things,” Lewis said, “and this is what the results look like.”
Like Lewis’ long-distance connection with LeBlanc.
“The huge, big play – game-changing play – was the shot,” Napier said. “Levi just laid it in right in there to Peter. Great route, great throw, good protection.”
Like the atypical tight man coverage played so well by a Cajun defense that kept UL in the game and made things oh-so-tough on Purdy, who finished just 16-of-35 for 145 yards – Iowa State’s lowest passing output since September 2018 against TCU – with the one pick and no TD throws.
“We hit him a number of times,” Napier said.
“He did make some plays with his feet, but, in general, we covered them well and we affected the quarterback at the same time.”
Like the mere fact UL did so relatively well with its COVID testing that it was able to make it to Ames at all and did not have to – like several teams have, Louisiana Tech, Memphis, Virginia and BYU among them – already cancel a game.
Because as the Cajuns traveled Friday to Story County, Iowa – No. 5 on a Johns Hopkins University-driven/USA TODAY-compiled list of the highest per-capita rates of coronavirus infections in the country over the past two weeks, according to a report filed that same day – they did so not only prepared to play on the field but also quite healthy off it.
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For that storyline, Napier thanked everyone from football sports medicine associate director Pat Richards and his staff to athletic director Bryan Maggard, sport medicine assistant athletic director Travis Soileau, facilities and event management associate athletic director John Dugas and even “local health professionals.”
“A lot of people worked really hard,” he said.
“And we kept our team healthy. You know, we went on a streak there for about nine weeks where, you know, we were having (only) a handful of cases.”
So there was much to celebrate, indeed, for the Cajuns – even as Napier also sent out reminders that there are more parties to properly plan.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and the scary thing is this team can better,” he said. “We’ve got lots of areas on our team, specifically, where we can continue to get better.”