One of Louisiana-Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth’s favorite analogies — and if I’ve learned anything covering this team for two months, it’s that Hudspeth loves analogies — is looking at his team as if it were a puzzle.
It’s a great way to simplify something that is incredibly complex. As much as armchair quarterbacks are loath to admit, winning a football game is not always as simple as making a substitution or calling one play instead of another. At its core, football is about making the right concepts and the right people fit together.
In his first three years, Hudspeth always seemed to do just that. He created an image of a team that looks seamless to the naked eye but was actually crafted from 100 moving parts.
It’s Hudspeth’s job, as puzzle master, to find the best way to assemble those interacting pieces into being a complete picture. He has to identify the corner pieces that build the framework of his team, then work his way in.
Really, the message is as simple as the analogy. It’s one that echoes in most of Hudspeth’s other metaphors, analogies and similes: Through unification, anything can be accomplished.
But the opposite of that is true, too. When things aren’t fitting together like they are supposed to, disaster awaits.
That isn’t to say this team isn’t unified like previous Hudspeth teams or doesn’t have the chemistry a winning team requires. But coaches haven’t quite found the way to get all the pieces in their proper place.
When everything is working in conjunction with one another, it makes things look easier than they really are. But when all the pieces aren’t fitting together as they’re supposed to be, it’s easy to find the holes and expose them.
Now it’s my turn to make an analogy: The problem for the Cajuns this season has been that the puzzle has fought back, like a Rubik’s Cube whose individual squares shift colors right when you think you have them lined up the way they should be.
At the beginning of the season, the Cajuns looked like they would form a beautiful work of art when fully assembled. Now they look more like Humpty Dumpty, trying to piece themselves back together after the great fall that was their 1-3 nonconference slate.
It didn’t help when one of Hudspeth’s corner pieces, receiver Jamal Robinson, was knocked out at the beginning of a three-game stretch of futility. But injuries are a problem every puzzle builder in college football has to deal with.
But the Cajuns have been downright puzzled when it comes to their other corner pieces — namely, a defense that features six starting seniors and a quarterback who was hailed as the conference’s preseason player of the year.
Under Hudspeth, the defense has never been the Cajuns’ calling card, but the team figured an experienced group in its second year under coordinator James Willis would be strong enough to accomplish its goals. That hasn’t been the case through four games.
But the defense isn’t getting help from an offense that has not produced at levels expected of it. Senior quarterback Terrance Broadway, who has almost twice as many interceptions as touchdown passes through four games, would be the first person to tell you that he needs to play better for his team to turn things around.
If the goal is unification, two sides of the ball working in tandem with the other, then the Cajuns have fallen flat this year.
The defense’s inability to keep teams off the scoreboard has forced the offense into playing catch-up, which minimizes its opportunity to do what it does best and run the ball. Conversely, the offense’s inability to stay on the field and put points on the board has put the defense in compromising situations.
All is not lost, though. The puzzle that is the 2014 Ragin’ Cajuns football team has stumped Hudspeth and his staff so far (with the help of some outstanding competition, by the way), but Hudspeth might only need to find that one piece, that one person or concept, that he has been missing.
If history does repeat itself, Hudspeth is a good bet to find that piece.
Put that in place? Everything could start taking shape quickly. Then it would be the Cajuns’ turn to once again puzzle their opponents.