LAFAYETTE — Both go by last-name derivatives. Those around the Louisiana-Lafayette football program call their boss “Coach Hud,” and his counterpart at fellow Sun Belt Conference member Texas State answers to “Coach Fran.”
Unfortunately for Mark Hudspeth and Dennis Franchione, their teams are struggling as they enter conference play. Fortunately for the coaches, their teams are entering Sun Belt play.
The Ragin’ Cajuns (1-3) and Bobcats (1-3) each play their remaining eight games within the league, beginning with Saturday’s 6 p.m. conference opener at Cajun Field, and both are hoping for a reboot, a do-over or a fresh start.
“It’s a new season,” Hudspeth said. “We can still win the Sun Belt, and that’s the picture right now. Our record’s 0-0.”
Both teams are 0-3 against FBS competition: UL-Lafayette fell at Kentucky and Louisiana Tech and at home to Akron, while Texas State lost at Florida State and Houston and at home to Southern Miss. Both are coming off disappointing outings, the Cajuns getting popped 43-14 at Tech last Saturday and the Bobcats falling at Houston 59-14 two weeks ago before an open date.
“We’re not this bad of a team,” Franchione said. “I knew going into this season that the schedule was front end-loaded. Really, we aren’t that far away from where we honestly expected to be at this point. But a 2-2 record would certainly look better.”
That’s where TSU was last year entering league play. The Cajuns like this year were 1-3, but they used a close 34-31 win over Georgia State to springboard to six straight league wins.
“Once we got that first win last year, it sort of took off,” said Hudspeth, who holds a 24-7 Sun Belt mark in his first four years in Lafayette. “We got some confidence and got some of our mojo back. I think we still have that now, because these guys have been part of a team that’s had success. No reason to press the panic button; we have to press the ‘stay the course’ button.”
History says Texas State should help that confidence. UL-Lafayette won the two meetings since TSU joined the Sun Belt, and neither was as close as the final score. The Cajuns were up 48-10 midway through the final period in what became a 48-24 win at Cajun Field in 2013, and they led 34-3 in the final 1:10 of a 34-10 win in San Marcos last year.
The Bobcats bounced back to win four of their last six in 2014, going 5-3 in league play with narrow November losses to league champ Georgia Southern 28-25 and bowl-bound South Alabama 24-20 before whipping bowl-bound Arkansas State 45-27. But TSU was snubbed when bowl invitations went out, despite a 7-5 record.
“We deserved a bowl game last year,” said Bobcats defensive back David Mims, the Sun Belt’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year. “But at the same time, we know as a team that we were the reason we didn’t get one. We lost enough games to not get one. We just have to win more games, as simple as that.”
Saturday would be a good start for both teams. The Cajuns have been ineffective offensively over the past two weeks against solid defenses from Akron and Tech. Texas State doesn’t fit into that category: The Bobcats are last nationally in scoring defense and pass defense and third from the bottom in total defense. TSU has given up 59, 56 and 59 points in its three losses to FBS teams.
Franchione already has replaced defensive coordinator John Thompson, with son Brad Franchione taking over those duties over the past two weeks.
“Fortunately we had the open week, a game and another open week,” the elder Franchione said. “We really caught a break in that regard in that two out of our three weeks we can work on us a lot more than if we had games.”
The Cajuns drove 80 yards in only five plays after last week’s opening kickoff, and they didn’t come close to scoring again until a fumble recovery late in the third quarter set up a short 21-yard drive. Junior Jalen Nixon, who got his first starting nod at quarterback, provided both scores with a 49-yard swing pass to Elijah McGuire in the first quarter and a 5-yard run late in the third.
“After that first drive, we moved the ball a little but continued to stall when we got in the red zone,” Hudspeth said. “We’ve gotta find some consistency at quarterback. Jalen ran the ball well. He missed a couple of passes, and that shoulder wasn’t 100 percent.”
Once again, the Cajuns’ starter won’t be known until gametime, with junior Brooks Haack getting the start in the first three games and closing the Tech game after Nixon was shaken up late.
“I’m not a musical-chair quarterback guy,” Hudspeth said. “Both of those guys have been lights out in practice and scrimmages; we’ve got to make a decision and get them in there against live bullets and see how they perform.”
The visiting Bobcats haven’t had as many offensive problems, with junior quarterback Tyler Jones ranking second in the Sun Belt in total offense (314.5 yards) and passing efficiency. He’s also TSU’s leading rusher, averaging 70.5 yards on the ground.
“He used to be a young guy, and he played like a young guy,” Hudspeth said. “Now he’s evolved into a veteran quarterback that can run and throw. He’s a deceiving runner. It seems like we’ve seen a lot of good quarterbacks, everybody we’ve played, and he’s going to be a challenge.”
Jones will put pressure on the Cajuns pass rush, which has been almost nonexistent in the past two weeks.
“We have to get after the quarterback more,” junior defensive tackle Karmichael Dunbar said. “We’ve been really good on run stopping; we just have to focus more on pass rush.”