Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth believes his team was in better shape than Kentucky: ‘We had more fight in us in the second half’ _lowres

Associated Press photo by David Stephenson -- UL-Lafayette running back Torrey Pierce, center, is mobbed by teammates after he scored a second-half touchdown against Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington, Ky. Coach Mark Hudspeth tried to keep his team fresh in the preseason, and the Cajuns rallied from 33-10 down in the third quarter to tie the game before finally falling 40-33.

LAFAYETTE — Throughout preseason drills, Louisiana-Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth walked the fine line between full-contact team preparation and having a healthy opening-game squad.

Hudspeth said Tuesday at his weekly news conference that the decision to cut back to limited tackling and contact after the first week of practice was the right one — with a couple of notable exceptions.

“Backing off as a team a little bit, whether it was by luck or by plan, I thought we had the right recipe of getting everybody fresh and not giving up conditioning,” Hudspeth said of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 40-33 road loss at Kentucky in Saturday’s season opener. “I thought we were in better shape than they were. We had more fight in us in the second half. We won the second half and won the fourth quarter convincingly.”

The Cajuns trailed 21-0 after 16 minutes and were down 33-10 late in the third quarter before scoring 23 unanswered points to tie the score with 8:25 remaining.

The Wildcats drove to a winning touchdown with 1:03 left after both teams had a possession with the game tied.

“We had a chance, and we controlled our own destiny,” Hudspeth said. “No question, we were the team in football shape. I was concerned about tackling since we hadn’t done that a lot in fall practice and it showed up a little bit. But after looking, that was probably better than I thought.”

Hudspeth did acknowledge his two major offensive weapons may not have been at peak readiness. Running back Elijah McGuire did have 86 rush yards and 56 receiving yards on 31 total touches, and wideout Jamal Robinson had six catches for 61 yards after missing the latter half of 2014 and all of spring drills with knee and foot injuries.

Hudspeth held both out of almost all contact work in the four weeks of preseason practice.

“I’ve got mixed feelings on that now,” he said. “We held Jamal a lot to make sure he got to the first game and we got him there rested and fresh. But to miss all of that and not get many live reps in camp, I think it showed. It was unfair to Jamal ... he wasn’t the Jamal Robinson that we know, and that was pretty evident.

“Even Eli took a while to get rolling and did some things uncharacteristic. He didn’t have a spring and not much camp either. But we accomplished the mission. We got them to the first game.”

Tovell did well

Senior linebacker Dominique Tovell made his 27th consecutive start one to remember Saturday, tying a school record with five tackles for loss. His total was also the highest tackle-for-loss number in the country on the opening weekend.

“You go back and watch the tape, and I think Dominique was the best player on the field,” Hudspeth said. “I don’t know when’s the last time I’ve seen that (five tackles for losses). That was strong.”

Tovell, the team’s second-leading tackler with 71 last season, finished with seven tackles and two sacks. Hudspeth noted that latter figure after pass-rush specialist Darzil Washington left Saturday’s game early with a shoulder injury.

“He’s a guy that we’ve got to put in position to make plays,” Hudspeth said of the Columbia, Mississippi, native. “We’ve got to be able to let him rush the quarterback. He’s very effective when we do that ... he gives us that pass-rushing ability. With Darzil out, we’re going to have to make sure he’s more involved in that.”

Numbers to know

In addition to Tovell leading the nation in tackles for loss, senior running back Torrey Pierce ranks seventh nationally in yards per carry rushing. Pierce had 110 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries against the Wildcats, and his 11.0 average also leads the Sun Belt Conference.

Not surprisingly, Stanley “Boom” Williams, who had a 75-yard scoring run on Kentucky’s first play from scrimmage Saturday, leads the country with a 13.5 per-carry average.

As a team, UL-Lafayette is ninth nationally in time of possession after a 37:05 mark against the Wildcats, and its 28 first downs was the nation’s 21st-highest total. The Cajuns are second in the Sun Belt in total offense (479.0, rush offense (247.0) and scoring offense (33.0) after one week, trailing only Appalachian State in all three categories after the Mountaineers’ 49-0 pounding of lower-level Howard on Saturday.

Inside knowledge from Lucas

Inside linebackers coach Mike Lucas served as Northwestern State’s defensive coordinator last season before joining the Cajuns’ all-new defensive staff this season. Hudspeth said that having Lucas’ knowledge of the Demons defense has been a big help in preparation for the home opener at 6 p.m. Saturday at Cajun Field.

“He knows their personnel, and that helps a lot,” Hudspeth said. “You don’t have that kind of knowledge when you play most people. You can tell that he recruited a lot of those guys because he’s really high on those guys. He’s very complimentary of their players.”

Nothing for granted

Hudspeth said he’s already made sure his team knows that the visiting Demons went to Ruston and beat La. Tech 30-27 last season — two weeks after the Bulldogs humbled the Cajuns 48-20 at Cajun Field.

“That alone makes sure these guys understand the sense of urgency in playing this team,” Hudspeth said. “We can’t give this team any layups. Tech turned it over five times in that game, so we have to make sure we’re taking care of the football, not giving up big plays and making them earn everything.”

The Cajuns have played one FCS team in each of Hudspeth’s four seasons and have won all four, taking the last three over Lamar, Nicholls State and Southern by a combined 155-13 score. UL-Lafayette did not play an FCS team in three of former coach Rickey Bustle’s last four years.

UL-Lafayette’s last loss to an FCS opponent was in 2007 against McNeese State, and the Cajuns are 10-1 in their past 11 meetings with FCS teams.

“Just because they’re an FCS team doesn’t mean they don’t have players on scholarship,” Hudspeth said. “They’ve got several Division I transfers — guys from LSU, Nebraska, all over.”

Moving week

Even though move-in day to the new Athletic Performance Center won’t come for most UL-Lafayette staffers until next week’s open date, the football team is already using the massive weight room and conditioning area in the 100,000-square-foot building this week for lifting.

“That building’s still like a big flashing sign on you, giving you a sunburn,” Hudspeth joked. “Hopefully we’re going to get in next week. This is really a top ‘Power Five’ conference facility — one that’s as good as any of the top half of the Power Five programs. Not just the building but the things that have been put in here. They didn’t hold anything back on the inside.”

The facility will have a formal ribbon-cutting at 2 p.m. Friday.