Before last week’s game against Georgia State, the 1-3 Cajuns seemed as if they were going through a bit of an identity crisis.
They were stuck in neutral offensively. They were a talent and experience-laden offense that hadn’t figured out a way to click while working in some new parts and finding a way to replace critical ones. They couldn’t find an answer or buy a big play.
With receiver Jamal Robinson on the shelf, quarterback Terrance Broadway was averaging a meager 5.2 yards per attempt. With Broadway grounded, opposing defenses were able to pin their ears back and challenge the Cajuns ground game with a loaded box. They looked hapless, helpless and hopeless offensively.
As the weeks and losses dragged on, the Cajuns progressively scored fewer and fewer points, going from 20, to 15, to nine. While the world swirled around them wondering what was wrong, the Cajuns patiently knew they’d find the answer.
“I’m not saying we allowed it to dictate our team, because through all the turmoil we still knew our identity, we knew who we were,” said senior right guard Daniel Quave.
That familiar explosive offense showed up again last week, when they ended both the losing streak and the streak of offensive futility in a 34-31 win in their conference opener.
“It feels good just to be back in our skin,” Daniel Quave said.
Said little brother Mykhael Quave, “We’re starting to get that flow that we need offensively.”
Coming into the Georgia State game, the Cajuns had only 29 passing plays that traveled 10 or fewer yards, an average of just 7.3 per game. They rolled up 13 such plays against the Panthers.
Looking back, it was a three-part solution that allowed the Cajuns of old to finally show their faces last Saturday. The open date the week before allowed the Cajuns to get healthy and to implement a slight change in strategy
The first part: having Jamal Robinson back on the field obviously helped the team. Robinson caught eight passes for 119 yards and a pair of scores in the win.
“To have (Robinson) out there making plays, catching touchdowns and catching passes was really big for us,” Broadway said.
Coach Mark Hudspeth said the Cajuns lack of a big-play offense was partially tied to Robinson’s injury. They simply didn’t want to take many shots downfield because without their big playmaker it felt like a waste of time.
“When you’ve got a big-play threat, you want to do that,” Hudspeth said. “But without a big-play threat, a lot of times, you feel like you may be wasting a down and you feel like you don’t want to get behind the sticks.”
The Cajuns were able to stretch the field vertically with Robinson back in the fold. That brings up part two: Stretch the defense horizontally with plays designed to attack the perimeter.
The Cajuns ran a jet sweep to slot receiver Al Riles on the first play of the game, setting the tone for their game plan the rest of the day. Five plays later, running back Elijah McGuire took an outside handoff and raced 54 yards for a score, the Cajuns longest play of the year.
The Cajuns kept attacking the perimeter with jet sweeps, stretch run plays and bubble screens. They forced the Panthers to commit either defenders or attention to the edge, which softened up the middle of the field for big bruiser Alonzo Harris.
“We’ve been very successful running the ball, but if we can continue to spread the field horizontally then that can help us even more in the run game,” said offensive coordinator Jay Johnson.
With the field — and therefore, the defense — stretched horizontally and vertically, that brings us to part three of the Cajuns’ offensive revival: the arrival of Al Riles as a playmaker.
Riles caught eight passes for 80 yards, including a breathtaking tip-toe effort in the fourth quarter to set up what would eventually prove to be the game-winning touchdown. It was Riles, not Robinson, who had a pair of the Cajuns three 20-plus-yard pass completions.
At the beginning of the season Riles was in a timeshare with converted (and since re-converted) tight end Matthew Barnes and true freshman Gabe Fuselier for snaps as the Cajuns’ slot receiver. He was still going through a learning process after switching from the defensive side of the ball in the offseason.
But he started hitting his stride just before the Cajuns would bust out of their slump.
“What we found, particularly after the Ole Miss game, is that Al is starting to develop and mature in that role,” Johnson said. “He has playmaking abilities. It was just a matter of identifying another playmaker and trying to give him opportunities.
“That has been a focus of what we’re trying to do and he’s responded.”
Riles’ strong play completed the puzzle for the Cajuns. If other teams devote more attention to Robinson, or to the ground game, the Cajuns now know they have three legitimate ways to get things going again.
It made it feel kind of like the old days, when the Cajuns were averaging better than 30 points per game. Even Broadway struggled to stay in the present when describing Riles’ play last weekend.
“He looked a lot like Harry Peoples out there on Saturday,” Broadway said.