If it’s a mid-October Tuesday, it must be the Cajuns and the Red Wolves.
And it must be for control of the Sun Belt Conference football standings.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Arkansas State will meet on an October Tuesday for the third straight year in front of an ESPN2 audience, and the top spot in the conference standings will again be on the line when the two league unbeatens meet at 7 p.m. at Cajun Field.
Two years ago, their Oct. 23 meeting ended up ugly for Cajun fans, as the Wolves ripped the home team 50-27 in a game that wasn’t that close. Arkansas State, which had lost eight straight at Cajun Field, went on to a 10-3 record, a second straight Sun Belt title and a win in the GoDaddy Bowl. The Cajuns, meanwhile, saw a league crown evaporate courtesy of the Wolves for a second straight year
UL-Lafayette returned the favor last season, going to Jonesboro, Arkansas, and dominating a game that wasn’t as tight as its 23-7 final score. That Oct. 22 battle saw the Cajuns defense hold a solid Arkansas State offense to 168 offensive yards and 10 first downs, while Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire each rushed for over 100 yards.
Now, 364 days later, they’ll go at it again in what is expected to be a raucous Cajun Field.
“We want the rest of the country to see what we have as far as atmosphere,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “Hopefully we can do our part with the product on the field.”
The teams ended up sharing last year’s league title when UL-Lafayette lost two at the end of the year, ending an eight-game win streak and with quarterback Terrance Broadway sidelined with a broken arm. But the Cajuns claimed the unofficial title with the head-to-head win on the way to their third straight R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl win.
Since then, the Red Wolves (4-2, 2-0) have made their fifth coaching change in five seasons, with Blake Anderson coming from a spot as offensive coordinator at North Carolina to take over the school with the nation’s biggest job turnover in the past half-decade. It’s not like that’s been a problem ... Arkansas State is 30-13 over the past four seasons.
Even though it’s Anderson’s first year at the Arkansas State helm, he’ll be in familiar territory. He served as UL-Lafayette’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2007. The big difference: that year’s 3-9 record came in a streak that included one winning season in 15 years. Since 2011, when Hudspeth came on board, the Cajuns are 30-15.
“I’m excited for them,” Anderson said of the Cajuns’ recent winning ways. “When we were there, the people there were always great to me and my family. It’s a good environment, good people. You know they were hungry for things to develop. Now they’ve got a good vision.”
Hudspeth’s vision this week is of a Red Wolves team that’s played better than anyone in the Sun Belt since mid-September. Arkansas State fell on the road at Tennessee and Miami early, but since then beat a solid Utah State team, took down UL-Monroe by two touchdowns, and crushed Georgia State 52-10 last week.
That was seven days after the Cajuns had to score in the final minutes and get a defensive stop to edge Georgia State 34-31 at home. They righted the ship last week in a 34-10 humbling of Texas State.
In that game, UL-Lafayette’s defense held Texas State, which came in averaging 499 yards per game, to eight first downs and under 200 yards until a drive in the final two minutes after the Cajuns led 34-3. The defensive front, which showed a four-man alignment most of the game in contrast to its normal 3-4 alignment, dominated the Bobcats.
“They’re huge, powerful up front,” Anderson said of the UL-Lafayette front wall. “We’ve had better matchups the last few weeks, but they are enormous. They remind me of Miami up front. It’ll be a different type of challenge for us.”
“Our O-line is going to have a challenge,” said Arkansas State quarterback Fredi Knighten, who ranks third in the Sun Belt in total offense (271 yards per game). “They’re going to have to get some push. We’re going to have to help them out ... hopefully our tempo will slow some of that down.”
Hudspeth knows the Wolves are very capable offensively, especially after the shellacking of Georgia State when running back Michael Gordon went for 188 yards for his second straight 100-yard game.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” he said. “Knighten is a really good dual-threat guy that can beat you with his arm and legs. And (wide receiver J. D.) McKissic gives them a chance to make big plays.”
Hudspeth is even higher on the Arkansas State defense, especially two-time GoDaddy Bowl defensive MVP linebacker Qushaun Lee.
“You watch that guy on film, and you walk out of there and your head’s spinning,” he said. “You’re wondering if you’re ever going to get a first down. He’s sideline to sideline and knocking people senseless.”
Broadway had his first 100-yard rushing game since the 2012 New Orleans Bowl against Texas State, going for 113 yards and throwing for 225 yards and one score. Harris (79 yards) and McGuire (64 yards) both scored against the Bobcats, but it was Broadway’s operation of the read option that left Texas State’s defense a step behind most of the night.
Broadway and the Cajuns well remember the last Cajun Field meeting with Arkansas State, when UL-Lafayette had five turnovers and Broadway had three interceptions in his third start.
“They’d beaten us pretty good the previous year, so to go on the road and win there last year, that was pretty big,” defensive lineman Justin Hamilton said. “The defense played great up there, and the offense did a tremendous job holding the ball most of the game (42:18 in possession time). The coaches gave us a great game plan again last week, we just have to go out and execute it.”