LAFAYETTE — The Louisiana-Lafayette football team is facing a familiar problem.
It’s not the possibility that it could start 1-3 for the second straight season – that’s the furthest thing from the Cajuns’ minds right now. But one thing that 1-3 start and this year’s 1-2 start have in common?
Turnovers. Too many of them committed by the offense and too few of them caused by the defense.
Through three games, the Cajuns are ranked 119th in the country in total turnover margin, at minus-6, and that’s with playing one fewer game than most teams at this point in the season. It’s actually an improvement from where they were a year ago, when they had a minus-8 turnover margin after the first three games.
When looking for a reason why the Cajuns got off to a slow start both last year and this year, the turnovers are the likely culprit. The Cajuns turned the ball over four times and only forced one turnover in each of their losses.
“The turnovers are a critical thing that we’ve got to turn around,” said coach Mark Hudspeth. “If we’d have only had one (turnover) and Akron had four, we’d have won the game. It’s really that simple.”
It’s simple as a reason for winning and losing, but it’s not so simple when trying to figure out a way to turn it around. The Cajuns spend a period of every practice going through a “turnover circuit” where the defense focuses on creating turnovers and the offense focuses on protecting the ball.
Even during the stretching period of practice, offensive players carry a ball while assistants try to catch them unaware and knock the ball out of their hands. Ball security is stressed every day.
“(The coaches) push us and they (emphasize) that we get turnovers,” said sophomore safety Tracy Walker, who has one of the Cajuns two interceptions this year. “We’ve got our own turnover circuit, we complete many different drills so we can cause turnovers.
“We’ve been in the right spots, it’s just that we haven’t capitalized. We’ve got to learn how to capitalize, and once we do that, we’ll cause turnovers.”
This is the part that can be frustrating. The key to forcing turnovers isn’t to try to force the issue, but rather to take advantage of the opportunities whenever they’re presented.
Walker said he’s a perfect example of failing to do so.
“I missed a pick this past Saturday against Akron,” Walker said. “I dropped one. We’ve had the opportunities, we just haven’t capitalized. As far as I’m concerned, as we continue to grow as a defense, as we continue to grow and learn, … the turnovers will come.”
When the Cajuns have had the ball, they’ve been allowing the other team the opportunity to take it back too easily, however. And it hasn’t all been strictly on the offense.
Take this for instance: The Cajuns lost a muffed punt in each of their two losses, both of which were critical errors.
Elijah McGuire fumbled one against Kentucky, setting up a short field that the Wildcats turned into a field goal – which could’ve made the difference in a game that was eventually tied late in the fourth quarter.
Last week, Torrey Pierce fumbled a punt near midfield. The Cajuns would’ve been set up with great field position to try for a game-tying touchdown before the half, instead Akron recovered and ran out the clock.
“We dropped one punt in the last four years and we had two in the last three (games),” Hudspeth said.
Quarterbacks Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon have combined to turn the ball over five times between them – though one of Haack’s interceptions came on a Hail Mary attempt in the final play against Kentucky.
Wide receiver Jamal Robinson was responsible for the other turnover, fumbling while fighting for extra yardage near the Kentucky goal line. The Wildcats recovered, then drove 95 yards for a touchdown -- a potential 14-point swing that felt even heavier on the momentum scale.
But there’s hope this is temporary. After their miserable start in the turnover department last year, the Cajuns rallied to post a +3 in the turnover margin by season’s end. In their final eight games (including the New Orleans Bowl), the Cajuns forced 16 turnovers while only giving the ball to the other team four times.
“The first few games last year, we didn’t cause many, just like this year,” Hudspeth said. “But boy, by midseason, we caught fire. … Hopefully we can do that again.”