MONROE — The circumstances are eerily similar to one year ago.
Louisiana-Lafayette’s football team is on a roll, having won five straight Sun Belt Conference games and favored to finish off a season-ending win streak that would result in a fourth straight bowl appearance and no worse than a share of the league title. Louisiana-Monroe is on a losing streak and has its backs to the wall to become bowl-eligible.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are again favored in Saturday’s 6 p.m. matchup at Malone Stadium, and they’re looking to blot out the memories of last season’s Cajun Field finale.
In that Senior Night game, the Warhawks rallied from a 14-0 deficit to take a 31-28 win, one in which Cajuns quarterback Terrance Broadway was sent to the sideline with a broken arm. That loss, and a 30-8 setback the following week at South Alabama, cost UL-Lafayette its first-ever outright Sun Belt title.
“That was heartbreaking for me,” said Broadway, the Baton Rouge-Capitol senior who has returned from that injury and ranks in UL-Lafayette’s top three in most career passing and total offense lists. “It was really frustrating. I’m still in disbelief.”
ULM snapped the Cajuns’ eight-game win streak, blotted a perfect home record and tipped over the post-game punch bowl. Officials from the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl were on hand to officially extend a bid for the third straight season, an offer which took place in a subdued locker room following the loss.
“That was a mistake,” said Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth, whose team finished with a third straight 9-4 record after topping Tulane in that bowl. “It was bittersweet coming in. Nobody was in accepting mood, although we were thrilled to get our third straight invitation.
“We’re not even talking about that. We’re talking about being 6-0, and we’re going to see the farm, mortgage the house, do everything we can to get to 6-0.”
“Last year we should have beaten them,” said sophomore wide out Jared Johnson, a Minden product who caught two touchdown passes in last week’s 44-16 romp over New Mexico State. “It’s an in-state game, and it means a lot to me being from up there, but after last year it means a lot to this team.”
The Cajuns (6-3, 5-0) have a leg up in the league standings on everyone except Georgia Southern (8-2, 7-0), which is not officially bowl-eligible and has only one Sun Belt game remaining — a Nov. 29 home game against ULM. UL-Lafayette has three league games left, hosting Appalachian State on Nov. 22 and traveling to Troy on Nov. 29.
The three remaining Cajuns foes have a combined 9-19 record including the Warhawks (3-6, 2-3), who haven’t won since a 22-20 home victory over Troy on Sept. 27. ULM, which was 3-1 at that time with its only loss at LSU, has lost its last three games by a combined 12 points, two of them coming in the closing seconds.
The Warhawks have much fonder memories of last year’s spoiler role, but the older ULM players also remember the Cajuns’ 40-24 win two seasons ago in the last Malone Stadium meeting. UL-Lafayette scored on the game’s final play on a deep Broadway pass.
Hudspeth, whose preparation week was jumbled by the birth of he and wife Tyla’s fourth child, said that ULM’s 3-3-5 stack defense is a big concern for a Cajuns offense that has rolled up more than 400 yards in every game in the five-win streak and is eighth nationally in red-zone effectiveness (92.3 percent).
“You don’t see it (the 3-3) very often so it takes a little while to prepare for,” he said. “It creates some issues with your protections and run schemes. But they also have some good players, and when you match good players with a difficult scheme, especially one you don’t typically see, it causes some issues.”
The Warhawks lead the Sun Belt in total defense (352.9) and rush defense (145.4) behind Hawk safety Mitch Lane, who lines up both in the secondary and near the line of scrimmage as part of ULM’s multiple defense.
Cajun freshman safety Tracy Walker, who had two interceptions in last week’s win at NMSU, knows that role well – as part of the scout team last year, he was tasked with mimicking what ULM’s safeties were expected to do.
“I know a lot how their defense works,” said Walker, one of two freshman safety starters for the Cajuns. “They really do a lot of different things, they’re a good team with good athletes like us.”
UL-Lafayette expects to get one of its athletes back this week in All-Sun Belt running back Alonzo Harris, who missed most of the last two games with nagging injuries. His absence has put the load on sophomore Elijah McGuire, who has responded with 517 rush yards in three games to go with a nine-catch, 90-yard receiving outing two weeks ago against South Alabama.
“It’s taken a toll,” McGuire said. “But when we’re both healthy it’s hard on a defense, especially when the offensive line is getting on their blocks like our guys have.”
Even without Harris for the last six quarters, UL-Lafayette has averaged 286.8 rush yards over its last four games and held the ball nearly 35 minutes. That’s not good news for a ULM offense that has been inconsistent and has only one 100-yard rush game in its last seven outings.
Last week’s 31-29 loss at Appalachian State marked the Warhawks’ biggest point output in the five-loss streak and negated yet another strong defensive effort. ULM allowed ApSt only 104 rush yards – 154 below its average – one week after holding Texas A&M 272 yards below its offensive average and shutting the Aggies out in the second half in a disappointing 21-16 loss. In fact, ULM has won 11 straight games when scoring at least 27 points.
Quarterback Pete Thomas has shouldered much of the offense, throwing for 2,052 yards and nine scores with only five interceptions.
“It’s a totally different scheme offensively than what we saw last week,” Hudspeth said. “They try to spread you out sideline to sideline, so you have to cover a lot of space. It puts a lot of people in position to have to make open-field tackles, so we’re going to have to do a good job of making one-on-one tackles and getting people on the ground.”