LAFAYETTE — It’s fitting that Louisiana-Lafayette all-time great Ron Guidry is being inducted into the school’s athletics Hall of Fame during Saturday’s homecoming activities.
Both the Ragin’ Cajuns and rival Louisiana-Monroe could use some “Louisiana Lightning” right now.
When the Cajuns (2-4, 1-1) host the Warhawks (1-6, 0-3) in Saturday’s 4 p.m. Sun Belt Conference battle, they’ll be looking to keep hopes for the 2015 season alive.
UL-Lafayette has six games remaining and needs to run the table to win a second Sun Belt title in three years. The Cajuns likely will be favored in all but one of those games, starting with their status as double-digit favorites for Saturday’s 51st meeting between the state rivals.
The Cajuns do have wiggle room for the postseason, needing four wins to become bowl eligible for the fifth straight year. The Warhawks don’t have that luxury and need to win all six games left on their 13-game schedule, which includes a late-November trip to Hawaii.
“Most of our goals can all be accomplished,” said UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth, whose team has won three of four against ULM. “Most of the conference is still wide open. There’s been a lot of times that the conference champion has had a loss. We can’t control that. ... All we can control is that first game in the second half of the season, which is this one.”
The Cajuns have lost three of their last four but did sandwich a 49-27 home win over Texas State that holds their Sun Belt record even heading into Saturday. The Warhawks would love their first conference win to come against the nearby rival and snap a five-game losing streak that includes league defeats to Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Idaho.
Those first two league losses came against teams with a combined 11-3 record, reinforcing Hudspeth’s claims that ULM has played one of the nation’s toughest schedules.
“It’s easily the toughest of any team in the Sun Belt,” he said. “At Georgia, at Alabama and then the two teams at the top of the conference. They’re going to come into this one fired up, as they always do.”
A ULM win would quell talk of Warhawks coach Todd Berry being on the hot seat.
“It’s not impacting myself or the staff in relation to some of that talk or conversation that comes up this time of year,” Berry said. “Going in, I thought this was as good a football team as we’ve had since we’ve been here, and it’s not like we haven’t had a good team before.”
The struggles of the teams mirror each other in many ways. Both have been inconsistent offensively, UL-Lafayette particularly anemic early in recent games and UL-Monroe accounting for 14 or fewer points in four of six games against FBS competition. Both have not forced opposing offenses to give up the ball, with the Cajuns last in the Sun Belt and 121st nationally in turnover margin with only five on the year.
More importantly, both have struggled with inconsistency at quarterback. Cajuns junior Jalen Nixon, after a sterling performance against Texas State in the Sun Belt opener, misfired often in last Tuesday’s 37-27 loss at Arkansas State. Despite a stunning 201 rushing yards and 253 passing yards, Nixon was only 17-of-44 passing and threw two key interceptions.
“You take away those two throws, and he might be national player of the week,” Hudspeth said. “That 14-point swing was critical. (Nixon) has showed he has a lot of skills; we’re just trying to harness those skills. He has to learn to make quick decisions and make the right decisions.”
ULM redshirt freshman Garrett Smith also has solid numbers, having thrown for 1,491 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was only 19-of-37 last week at Idaho. The Warhawks converted 2 of 13 third-down situations in the 27-13 road loss.
ULM’s offense has been slowed by the absence of standout receiver Rashon Ceaser, who suffered an ankle injury against Alabama. He was one of three ULM receivers with 800 or more receiving yards last year, but one of those graduated, and Ceaser and Ajalen Holley (upper body) are sidelined with injuries.
“Injuries are a part of this, and we haven’t caught a lot of breaks,” Berry said.
Hudspeth said ULM’s injuries cause a different kind of problem for his defense, which has given up 101 first-half points in its four losses.
“We knew who to cover when they had Ceaser,” he said. “Now they have a lot of good receivers that can all catch, and they’ve got a talented young guy who’s going to be an excellent quarterback. He can make things happen, he throws a good ball and he has a lot of weapons at the receiver positions. They’ve been hit by the injury bug like we have, but they have kept battling.”
Hudspeth is hoping he can say the same for his team after Saturday’s game — much as he did last year, when the Cajuns held on for a 34-27 win in Monroe. That came in the middle of a streak of eight wins in nine games to end the season.
“We’ve been here before,” said Hudspeth, whose teams are 28-11 after September in his five years. “We’re really close, right on the cusp of breaking out and playing exceptionally well.”