The offensive success that Louisiana-Lafayette found Saturday night in its Sun Belt Conference football opener may have overshadowed the squad’s best defensive outing of the season.
Those offensive numbers in the 49-27 win over Texas State didn’t overshadow that defense in coach Mark Hudspeth’s eyes, though.
“I thought we had a great plan defensively,” Hudspeth said Monday at his weekly media luncheon. “They had a couple of big plays, but when you watch the film it was usually due to a missed tackle or a missed assignment. We did get some pressure on the quarterback, and we had our hands on a lot of balls ... we had chances to get a lot more turnovers.”
When the game was in doubt Saturday, the Cajuns defense went into lock-down mode. The visiting Bobcats scored in the first three minutes of the second quarter to take a 14-7 lead, but in TSU’s next eight possessions the UL-Lafayette defense held the visitors to 13 offensive yards and one first down.
Texas State had 209 offensive yards with just over 12 minutes left in the game, and quarterback Tyler Jones misfired on 12 straight passes at one point on the way to a 13-of-33 night. Jones entered the game ranked second in the Sun Belt in passing and total offense.
“You’ve gotta give our young secondary some credit,” Hudspeth said. “Of course, it makes a big difference when the offense is moving the ball, scoring points and keeping the defense off the field.”
During those eight mid-game possessions, the Cajuns out-gained TSU by a 319-13 margin, and the hosts never had a negative-yardage play. Junior quarterback Jalen Nixon finished 22-of-29 for 238 yards and three touchdowns, all of those numbers easily career highs. Nixon also rushed for 45 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in his second start.
“It all started with Jalen,” Hudspeth said. “He played extremely well. When you complete 22 of 29 for three scores and run for another, I don’t know if it gets much better. He moved the chains, he made a lot of the right checks, and he did a great job of managing the game.
“If we’d had that type production, maybe we wouldn’t be where we are record-wise now (2-3). Maybe we would’ve been more competitive in those two games since the Northwestern win.”
The Cajuns go into their first non-traditional week of the regular season, not playing on Saturday and traveling to take on Sun Belt Conference rival Arkansas State next Tuesday, Oct. 20, in a 7 p.m. ESPN2 game. Later this year, UL-Lafayette will play a Thursday night road game at South Alabama (Nov. 12, ESPNU).
“This is a big week for us as we continue to try to improve,” Hudspeth said. “Any time you get a little extra prep, it helps. It gets us a head start, gets us ahead of the curve.”
Nixon’s the one
Hudspeth reminded Monday’s media audience about Nixon’s performance in the season opener against Kentucky, when he completed all four of his pass attempts and also rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown on five carries. The junior entered that game with four minutes left in the third quarter and rallied the Cajuns from a 33-10 deficit to a 33-all tie before the Wildcats scored a game-winning touchdown with 50 seconds left.
“As the season’s gone on, he’s gotten better and really improved,” Hudspeth said. “Coach (Jay) Johnson is very detailed in practice with his mechanics, and he’s progressing on a good, natural curve. He’s played six good quarters of football with the Kentucky game. If he can continue that, he’s going to have an outstanding year.”
Even with Saturday’s offensive success, the Cajuns will re-tool the offensive line once again for the ASU game.
Four-year starter Mykhael Quave was sidelined for the first time in his career Saturday with a torn rotator cuff suffered a week earlier against Louisiana Tech. Quave had started 43 straight games, and his absence meant that UL-Lafayette made a mid-season lineup change in the offensive line for the first time in Hudspeth’s five years as head coach.
The second change will apparently come next Tuesday. Junior Eddie Gordon, who started the first four games at center but moved to left guard on Saturday, will return to that center position.
“We had three players in new positions,” Hudspeth said. “Eddie was playing so well at center early in the year, and we didn’t feel like the guard spot really fit him. We’re going to move him back and figure out the left guard position.”
Redshirt freshman Jesse Freeman, the backup at left guard, could become the starter. Grant Horst, who started at center Saturday, could also move over.
“We’re going to work on some combinations because we have some time to do it with the extended preparations,” Hudspeth said. “I thought our kids played well with the three practices they had at those positions.”
Tuesday in the Belt
UL-Lafayette is accustomed to playing in the Sun Belt’s Tuesday television games. Next week’s game in Jonesboro, Arkansas, will be the fifth Tuesday on which the Ragin’ Cajuns have played in three seasons, including back-to-back Tuesday games in each of the past two years.
“We’ve gotten used to doing that,” Hudspeth said. “The last two years we’re 4-0 on the odd-night games. We think we’ve figured out the best way to prepare, and we’ve done well on our preparation, so we’re not going to waver from that. What we have done works. Playing on Tuesday night national TV is always great for us.”
The Cajuns and the Red Wolves will be playing on Tuesday for the third straight year. UL-Lafayette won 23-7 in Jonesboro in 2013 and took a back-and-forth 55-40 win last Oct. 21 at Cajun Field.
On the air
Hudspeth said his team took Monday off and will also not practice on Wednesday, which he likened to a game-week Monday because of the Tuesday game. The Cajuns normally do not practice on Mondays of game weeks.
The team will work out Tuesday in what Hudspeth called a “bonus practice,” and also on the Tuesday agenda for he and his staff is watching Arkansas State’s 7 p.m. ESPN2 contest at South Alabama.
“We’ll get that game (the scouting video) Wednesday morning,” Hudspeth said, “but I like watching the TV broadcast. You get to see more of the flow of the game, see their coaching style.”