LAFAYETTE — College football is full of mantras about never assuming anything, not looking past an opponent and never using previous success to predict future victories.
Louisiana-Lafayette nearly gave Kentucky a painful reminder of those mottoes last weekend, and that should help the Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday, when they find themselves in the role of heavy favorite.
Coach Mark Hudspeth preached all week that his team was focused on and would be ready for Northwestern State when the Demons provide the opposition for the Cajuns in their 6 p.m. home opener at Cajun Field.
“We’re putting Kentucky to bed,” Hudspeth said of the 40-33 loss in Lexington when UL-Lafayette rallied from a 33-10 deficit and had possession with a chance to win in the closing minutes. “The absolute most important thing for our team right now is Northwestern. They’re going to be fired up coming in here, playing in front of 35,000, and those kids are going to come in here with that chip on their shoulder and ready to show they belong on this level.”
The desire to improve from a disappointing 34-20 home loss to Southland Conference mate Southeastern Louisiana in last week’s home opener should motivate the Demons (0-1). But facts seemingly stand in the way of Northwestern State pulling off the upset:
-- UL-Lafayette hasn’t lost to a Football Championship Subdivision team since 2007, and since Hudspeth took over, the Cajuns are 4-0. The last three wins, over Lamar, Nicholls State and Southern, have come by a combined 155-13 score. The hosts rolled up 49 points the last time the Cajuns faced the Demons, back in 2005.
--Cajuns rushers rambled for 247 yards and four touchdowns against what was billed as an improved Kentucky defense, almost 200 of those yards in the second half, even though returning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Elijah McGuire was bottled up most of the night. Conversely, the Demons gave up a staggering 438 rushing yards and 7.2 yards per rush in their loss to the Lions.
--UL-Lafayette has never lost a home opener under Hudspeth and hasn’t lost one at all since 2007. The Cajuns are 18-4 at Cajun Field since Hudspeth took over before the 2011 season.
The odds are against his players, but Northwestern State coach Jay Thomas only has to refer back less than a year to remind them what can happen. Northwestern State was a big underdog going to face a bowl-bound Louisiana Tech team last year and left Ruston with a shocking 30-27 win over a Bulldogs team that didn’t lose again at home, came within seconds of winning the Conference USA title and beat Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
“We got to experience that last year, playing and winning at Tech,” Thomas said. “It’s a similar situation going into this game, the anticipation, especially for those who remember when the schools were in the same conference. There’s a lot of common ground and great history that we’re sharing with our guys.”
Hudspeth showed his team video of that Demons win over Tech — and video of the Cajuns’ humbling 48-20 loss to those same Bulldogs two weeks earlier at Cajun Field.
“We know we’ve got to get off to a better start,” Hudspeth said, referring to the 21-0 hole his team faced last weekend before the second-half rally. “We’ve got to do that, because you let Northwestern get momentum, and you’re in for a fight.”
One reasonable certainty for Saturday is a bevy of quarterbacks. UL-Lafayette will almost certainly use a combination of juniors Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon, after both had success at Kentucky. Haack threw for 194 yards on 22 of 37 completions and also ran for a touchdown in the starting role, while Nixon sparked the second-half comeback while rushing for 37 yards and a score and completing all four of his pass attempts.
Just like the previous week, Hudspeth declined to name a starter. Haack figured to be last week’s starter, but that may be even more in question this week given Nixon’s late success and the success SLU had in the running game against the Demons defense.
“Both played at a high level,” Hudspeth said. “Brooks didn’t get as much help the first two and a half quarters, when we had points we left all over the field. It shouldn’t have come down to that last drive.”
Northwestern State used three quarterbacks in last week’s opener, and the most successful was third-stringer Joel Blumenthal. After starter Stephen Rivers (the former LSU player) and backup Daniel Hazelwood were unsuccessful at sustaining drives, Blumenthal provided a late spark when he entered midway through the third quarter. He led scoring marches of 87 and 64 yards that cut the margin to 26-20; of the Demons’ 259 offensive yards, 156 of them came on the four series when Blumenthal was under center.
The three are still listed that way on the depth chart, and Hudspeth said he figures to see Rivers as the starter and Northwestern State return standout Ed Eagan to draw a lot of attention.
“He’s a guy that can really throw it, an athletic guy,” Hudspeth said of Rivers. “But the guy we’ve got to watch for is Eagan. He’s one of the best we’ll see this year. He’s dangerous, a phenomenal athlete. Every return I watch, I see he’s making people miss, breaking tackles. I’m the special teams coach, so I know we have to keep him from making big plays.”