LAFAYETTE — For those remnants of the 2013 Louisiana-Lafayette football team, hearing the words South Alabama triggers an immediate response not unlike hearing a song on the radio that takes you back to a warm summer day.
Except the memories aren’t warm, and they aren’t pleasant.
“It’s hard to forget about,” said junior receiver Al Riles. “That cold night, the rain, the loss.”
Two years ago, the Cajuns traveled to Mobile, Alabama, needing a win to clinch an outright Sun Belt Conference title. The game-time temperature was 41 degrees, made colder by rain and gusting winds. Worse, the Cajuns were without starting quarterback Terrance Broadway, who broke his arm the week before against ULM.
They got shellacked. South Alabama forced four turnovers and shut the Cajuns out for the first three quarters to dash the Cajuns’ hopes in a 30-8 beat-down.
Quarterback Brooks Haack’s first career start was a forgettable one. In miserable conditions, he completed 5-of-14 passes for 49 yards, no touchdowns and an interception before getting yanked.
It was forgettable for everyone but Haack, that is. Like Riles and so many other players from that 2013 team, he committed it to memory. All of it.
“It stung really, really bad,” Haack said. “I can still picture every single thing about that whole weekend. Every play still sticks out in my mind, it was that bad. I really took it hard, and I made myself take it that hard.”
There’s a reason for that. It introduced Haack to what can happen when one isn’t properly prepared for a game. Sometimes, the most lasting lessons are the ones with a butt-whipping attached.
“That’s one of those things you never want to be a part of again,” Haack said.
Fast forward two years, Broadway is gone and the team, for now, is largely in Haack’s hands. He’s the captain, he’s been the starter, the backup and the starter again. The one thing that hasn’t changed since that day — and really, because of that day — is Haack’s commitment to preparation.
The only thing Haack knew after that game was that Broadway may not be ready for the team’s upcoming bowl game. So he made a pledge to make better use of his opportunities in practice, to devote closer attention to the studious side of playing quarterback and to get physically stronger.
He’s still not perfect, but two years later he’ll return to the scene where he made his first start. The weather won’t be as bitter this time, Haack will be better prepared. He’s not afraid to say this game has personal meaning to him.
“It’d be a huge burden off my shoulders,” Haack said. “You’re always going to remember your first start … and that’s a tough one to remember. To go out there and play really well and get a good win for our team would mean a whole bunch to me, and it would keep us on the right track going forward.”
This isn’t the same South Alabama team, however. The Jaguars aren’t world beaters, but they also aren’t the team that competed for the first time as a Division I team in 2013.
South Alabama has one of the stingiest pass defenses in the league. The Jaguars are yielding just 192.9 yards per game through the air, which is the second best mark in the Sun Belt and 30th nationally.
They also possess solid offensive weapons in back Xavier Johnson, who had 148 yards on nine carries against Idaho last week, and tight end Gerald Everett, who leads the SBC with seven touchdown catches.
The Cajuns are focused on the task at hand, but the memory of that 2013 game still lingers when the thought of a return trip to Mobile is brought up.
“Whenever I think about (South Alabama), I think about two years ago. It was not a good moment,” said senior defensive lineman Chris Prater. “Experiencing a loss like that, in the conditions and the cold, it was just an all-around horrible feeling.”
The Cajuns have a chance to exorcise their past demons this weekend, while also making up some ground in the present.
“We all want to get this one back, we all want to stay in the conference race,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “This is a big game.”