For all the obstacles UL-Lafayette’s football squad has had to overcome during the past three seasons, rarely has overconfidence been an issue.
But it could be a concern for the Ragin' Cajuns on Thursday night after they went on a 2,400-mile trip and won as a touchdown underdog and have returned home to face a team they've owned in the past.
Texas State has never played the Cajuns within even three touchdowns since the Bobcats joined the Sun Belt Conference five years ago. Even though TSU was bowl-eligible twice in the past four seasons, with 6-6 and 7-5 records in 2013 and 2014, and regardless of whether the teams met at Cajun Field or in San Marcos, Texas, the closest margin of victory for UL-Lafayette in the series was 49-27 in 2015, when the Cajuns outscored their visitors 35-13 in the second half.
The Cajuns (2-3, 1-1) are a 14-point favorite for Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. at Cajun Field, which is on ESPNU as part of the Sun Belt’s national mid-week television package. That point spread is the highest in UL-Lafayette's favor against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since … well, since last year’s meeting, when the Cajuns won 27-3 in San Marcos in TSU coach Everett Withers’ 2-10 inaugural season.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Texas State’s program, and for coach Withers,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “He did such a great job at James Madison, and he’s going to do good things at Texas State. You have to look past their record to see that they’ve been competitive.”
The Bobcats (1-5, 0-2) haven’t won since a 20-11 opening victory against Houston Baptist, a Football Championship Subdivision team and member of the Southland Conference, which was TSU’s home until it joined the Sun Belt for the 2013 season. However, in the first Sun Belt game of the season, preseason league favorite Appalachian State barely survived a 20-13 scare in San Marcos.
Texas State trailed by that score with 2:26 left and had the football at its own 1-yard line. The Bobcats drove the length of the field, but Damian Williams’ final-play slant pass to Elijah King from the Mountaineers' 7 came up 1 yard short of a potentially tying score.
Williams, a product of Metaire-Rummel, provides a dimension the Bobcats were lacking. The senior transfer from Mississippi State played in 17 games with one start for the Bulldogs, including a notable appearance off the bench against LSU when he threw for 94 yards and a touchdown.
“He really makes them go,” Hudspeth said. “He can throw the deep ball really well, but he can also run. He can make people miss and he’s big enough (6-1, 215) to make it tough to get him down. He can create problems for a defense.”
That could be a chilling prospect for a Cajuns defense that has rarely slowed opposing offenses. But in last week’s 21-16 victory at Idaho, UL-Lafayette’s defensive unit had a stunning turnaround and held the Vandals without a touchdown over the final 3 ½ quarters. Idaho’s offense generated only 13 first downs, five third-down conversions and 279 total yards.
The Cajuns are still ranked 128th nationally out of 129 FBS teams in scoring defense (46.2 points), 125th against the run (265.2 yards) and 124th in total defense (506.6 yards), but Saturday’s outing at Idaho was a start.
“We saw the defense we expected to see this year,” Hudspeth said. “Our guys put together four quarters of football. We tackled much better, guys played their assignments, and our front seven — and particularly our front four — were very aggressive. We definitely took a step in the right direction.”
Defense also has been an issue for the Bobcats, who have allowed 44, 45 and 45 points in their past three outings. Five days ago in Texas State’s 49-27 home loss to UL-Monroe, the Bobcats defense allowed 589 yards, and ULM quarterback Caleb Evans threw for 433 yards and three touchdowns.
“We did not play well enough on defense to win, and a lot of that is missed assignments and technique and fundamental errors that were uncharacteristic of our older guys,” said Withers, who led James Madison to an 18-7 record and two NCAA FCS playoff appearances before coming to Texas State. “I’m not sure why that happened, but I hope it helps with a short week. We’ve got older players that need to play better.
“I see growth from your young guys, but some of our older guys have to play better or they’re going to be over there with me and the young guys are going to play for them.”
That could be good news for the UL-Lafayette offense and quarterback Andre Nunez, who will get his first collegiate start Thursday. Nunez has come off the bench in the past two games, replacing starter Jordan Davis. Nunez completed 18 of 24 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown in the win at Idaho after throwing for 287 yards and two scores in the second half against ULM.
“I don’t think much has changed,” Nunez said. “I’ve been approaching every week to be the starter, and once I get my shot, I’ve got to do what it takes to earn the respect of my teammates.”
Contrary to the defensive struggles, UL-Lafayette’s offense ranks second in the Sun Belt in scoring (37.0) and is one of 12 FBS teams to score on every trip inside the red zone (22 for 22). Nunez especially has provided a spark the last two games.
“He’s come in and played awfully well,” Hudspeth said. “We missed a few checks that he would have made if he’d gotten more reps, but hopefully he’s gotten that this week.”