LAFAYETTE — A struggling University of Louisiana at Lafayette football team hosted a struggling Sun Belt team and won a closer-than-expected game with a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Jamal Robinson.
That sentence could be referring to last week’s 30-24 win against a ULM team that came into the game 1-5. That sentence could also be referring to last season’s 34-31 win against a Georgia State team that was 1-3 entering the game.
What remains to be seen is if the Cajuns will respond this season the same way they did last year, when that fourth-quarter rally against Georgia State marked the beginning of a six-game winning streak that pushed the Cajuns from a 1-3 start into contention for the SBC title.
“I sure hope so,” coach Mark Hudspeth said when asked if a similar strong finish could be looming. “Our team continues to fight, continues to prepare well. A lot of similarities between this week’s game and last year’s Georgia State game, so I’m hoping this will be a stepping stone, a little confidence for our guys.”
At 3-4 this season, and with one SBC loss already under their belt, the Cajuns are in a bit of a different situation than they were last year when they beat Georgia State in the conference opener.
The team’s goals, as Hudspeth has said frequently for the past several weeks, are still ahead of them. They can still contend for, if not outright win, the league’s regular-season title. But with that one loss already in the books, they’ll almost certainly have to win out the remainder of the regular season.
The remaining games on the Cajuns schedule are a mix between winnable games and tough circumstances.
The five remaining opponents have a combined record of 15-23, including an 8-10 mark in league play. Take Appalachian State (7-1, 4-0) out of that mix, and those numbers dip to 8-22 and 4-10. The Cajuns (3-4, 2-1) should be favored to win four of those games despite their struggles early in the season.
But there are some hurdles they’ll have to get over, with the first two rapidly approaching.
Consider this: The Cajuns will play two road games in a span of five days in an awful quirk of SBC scheduling. Those games will come against Georgia State and South Alabama teams that, like the Cajuns, are probably better than their records suggest.
That is a tough assignment for any team to draw, much less a Cajuns team that is in the midst of trying to turn its season around. The Cajuns will return from Atlanta late Saturday night and have four days to prepare and implement a game plan before traveling again to Mobile, Alabama.
If the Cajuns can clear those hurdles, which is not remotely close to a given, they would have nine days to prepare for a woeful New Mexico State team. If that game could be considered a win, it would put the Cajuns at 6-4 with a 5-1 league record for arguably the most challenging game on their schedule.
While the country is supposedly lovely, not many teams — especially teams around these parts — would be grateful for a late November trip to Boone, North Carolina. Especially not with the way Appalachian State has played this season.
The Mountaineers are the most daunting remaining obstacle on the Cajuns schedule. They currently lead the SBC in both scoring offense and scoring defense, the latter of which they lead by an enormous margin.
It was the Mountaineers who ended that magic run of a year ago, when they came into Cajun Field and walloped the Cajuns 35-16. It was the Cajuns’ only loss after September, and it prevented them from a share of the conference title.
Last season’s Cajuns went on their run after the Georgia State game by solving some of the defensive problems that had plagued them earlier in the year and by figuring out a way to get points on the board after struggling to score in nonconference play.
Some, if not most, of that can be chalked up to the difference in competition level between the Cajuns conference and nonconference slate. But it was also those struggles against nonconference foes that brought about the changes the Cajuns needed to make.
In their win streak, which was done almost entirely without Robinson, they focused on establishing the run game and averaged 250 yards in their final nine games. They switched to a four-man defensive front that immediately improved their pass rush.
Once again, the Cajuns are seeking improvement on both sides of the ball. Their running game, particularly with star running back Elijah McGuire, has been inconsistent, while their passing game has more often than not been an issue. An improvement in one of these areas should help the other out.
On defense, there are signs that the Cajuns might be coming out of their early season doldrums. While tackling in the open field has continued to haunt the Cajuns, their back-end coverage has improved since they were torched by Kentucky and Louisiana Tech earlier this season.
Now, the question remains: Can they put it all together like they did a year ago after a tight win against a struggling opponent? Or will the issues that surfaced early this season continue to plague the team?
The answer should become clearer after Saturday’s game.