LAFAYETTE — All the Louisiana-Lafayette football team needed to see was the fourth quarter of Arkansas State’s win against South Alabama Tuesday to underline the importance of ball security in this week’s matchup.
Trailing 31-20 with 13 minutes remaining, Arkansas State’s defense took over. Wide receiver Gabe Fuselier was watching and took note.
“They seem like a team to really get hyped up, to build off each other,” said Fuselier. “So I feel like we can’t give them momentum. We can’t turn the ball over, really.”
A quick touchdown drive by the Red Wolves offense — three plays, 65 yards in 39 seconds —was followed by three consecutive drives in which Arkansas State forced a turnover.
The last two turnovers were returned for touchdowns, and in a game-clock span of 5:56, Arkansas had scored 29 unanswered points to turn an 11-point deficit into an 18-point lead.
“They get right back into the game and get the momentum,” said Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth. “And momentum is such a big thing.”
The Cajuns are acutely aware of the devasting pendulum-swing effect momentum can have on a game, particularly as it’s related to turnovers, particularly as it’s related to turnovers they’ve made.
Through four games, the Cajuns ranked as one of the worst teams in the country when it came to turnover margin. They’d committed nine more turnovers than they forced.
The year before, they were even worse, sitting at -10 in turnover margin.
Turnovers are never good things to commit, but even worse than the red number in the turnover margin column was the situation in which some of those turnovers were committed.
Last year against Louisiana Tech, the Cajuns failed to even give themselves a chance to dig their way out of a 10-point halftime hole by turning the ball over on three of their first five second half possessions.
The next week against Ole Miss, running back Alonzo Harris fumbled the ball at the Rebels’ six-yard line, taking away an opportunity at a game-tying score. Ole Miss recovered and went 94 yards in seven plays. That was the first of four Cajuns turnovers that resulted in 28 Ole Miss points.
Against Kentucky this season, Jamal Robinson coughed up the ball when trying to break a tackle inside the Kentucky 10-yard line. It was recovered at the five, and Kentucky responded with a five-play, 95-yard drive to make it 21-0 instead of 14-7. That 14-point swing could’ve made the difference in a game the Cajuns lost by seven on a last minute touchdown.
So yes, the Cajuns are aware that they need to take care of the ball. They’ve seen the myriad ways turnovers alter the course of a game. They saw how their fortune shifted after the team effectively eliminated their own turnover epidemic last season.
Still, Arkansas State comes into the game with a nation-leading 13 interceptions, so a little extra caution may be warranted in the passing game.
Hudspeth’s message to quarterback Jalen Nixon: “Just take what the defense gives you, be smart and take care of the ball.”
Nixon wasn’t shaking in his boots after watching the defensive display, though.
“Just play within myself and do what I’m coached to do,” Nixon said. “I don’t have to get all on myself just because I’ve seen them beat South (Alabama). Us and South (Alabama) are two different teams.”
The Cajuns hope to minimize Arkansas State’s ball-hawking ability by leaning on the run game, as they did last year when they ran the ball 56 times for 419 yards and eight scores. In that game, Terrance Broadway only attempted 17 passes, three shy of his season low.
“Luckily for us, we don’t throw it 45 times a game, so I’m hoping we won’t have many (interception opportunities),” Hudspeth said. “We want to be able to run the football effectively.”