Why Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns football rushing offense has struggled after two games

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Elevating the ground game is high on coach Billy Napier’s to-do list following two sub-par performances to open UL football's season.

The Ragin’ Cajuns (1-1) managed just 76 net rushing yards in a season-opening loss at Texas and 90 in Saturday’s 27-24 win over Nicholls.

“There’s gonna be a day we’re going to have to run the ball to win,” Napier said Monday, “and certainly I think that’s an area where we need to improve, whether it’s communication, whether it’s fundamentals.”

That day could come soon with Ohio (0-2) of the MAC visiting Cajun Field on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN). The Bobcats lost at home to 28-26 to FCS member Duquesne. 

Napier isn’t pinning the problem on anyone in particular.

“Often times when you aren’t rushing the ball everybody wants to talk about the offensive line,” he said, “but everybody contributes to that.

“That’s the quarterback getting us in the right running play, that’s the tight ends on the edges, it’s the back’s eye discipline and footwork.”

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Cajun numbers don't lie

The Cajuns are averaging 2.8 yards per carry and 83 per game after rushing 29 times at Texas and 31 against Nicholls.

That’s down from 5.5 per carry and 213 per game in 2020, when UL’s top two running backs were San Francisco 49ers sixth-round draft choice Elijah Mitchell, who ran 19 times for 104 yards and a touchdown against Detroit in his NFL debut Sunday, and undrafted Trey Ragas, currently on the Las Vegas Raiders’ practice squad.

Also down from last season is UL’s ratio of run plays to pass plays.

In 2020, the Cajuns ran 429 times and passed 310. This year, they’ve run 60 times and passed 73.

The flip in script could partially be attributed to the fact UL tried playing catchup at Texas. Another factor: Nicholls sold out against the run.

The Colonels frequently had an extra man in the box and unexpectedly frequently altered defensive front looks.

“A lot of it has to do with run-pass option,” Napier said.

“We’re running into loaded boxes at times, and (quarterback) Levi (Lewis) is throwing the individual cuts.”

Sep 4, 2021; Austin, Texas, USA; Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns running back Chris Smith (21) runs for a touchdown in the second half against the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

UL offensive line not off the hook

UL’s new top back, Chris Smith, is averaging 4.5 yards on 22 carries including a 27-yard touchdown run at Texas – not too far off the 5.6 he averaged on 62 attempts last season, but well shy of the 10.4 he averaged on 32 attempts as the Cajuns’ No. 4 in 2019.

But Napier seems generally pleased with Smith and UL’s other top two backs, Emani Bailey and freshman Montrell Johnson Jr.

“When given the chance,” he said after Saturday’s win, “the backs did a nice job.”

UL’s offensive line, however, isn’t off the hook.

“I think we all know as an offense, and as a whole team obviously, we didn’t play our best (against Nicholls),” starting center Shane Vallot said. “So we all know what we’ve got to work on.”  

Napier seemed especially frustrated by protection issues, citing occasional failure to properly recognize defensive looks, footwork issues and communication problems Saturday.

“Some of it’s gonna be technical issues … from a fundamental standpoint and coaching standpoint,” he said.

Napier attributed one play that went awry to “a complete mental error.”

When the Cajuns went for it on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter against Nicholls, Smith was thrown for a loss on a play that had worked earlier. Napier cited blown blocking – the “wrong combination call up front,” he said – for that.

Shane Vallot not concerned

The Cajuns have two new offensive line assistant coaches this season, Jeff Norrid and Darnell Stapleton.

They’ve also opened with four returning starters this year, including Vallot, right guard O’Cyrus Torrence and right tackle Max Mitchell. But with 2020 starting left tackle Carlos Rubio injured, usual starting left guard Ken Marks shifted to tackle and inexperienced AJ Gillie has been the new left guard starter.

Despite the changes, Vallot is confident the Cajuns will soon get their ground game rolling.

“I’m not concerned all, man,” he said.

“If you remember last year we kind of started off slow also on offense. … It’s kind of what’s happening this year.”