Defense turns in solid effort in UL-Lafayette win _lowres

Advocate photo by Buddy Delahoussaye-- Ragin Cajuns linebacker Dominique Tovell (52) gets the sack and causes the fumble as the Cajuns play host to Texas State Bobcats on Saturday Oct. 10, 2015.

THE NEXT LEVEL: Steady linebacker Tovell has come on strong as pass rusher

Dominique Tovell has been one of the steadiest players on the Cajuns defense the past few years, but nobody could’ve been expecting this.

Tovell, all of a sudden, has turned into the most productive pass rusher in the Sun Belt Conference. This is surprising because of his history.

Entering Thursday’s game, Tovell leads the SBC with seven sacks — four of which have come in his past two games.

For some perspective, Tovell managed 5.5 sacks total in his first three years.

Where did this come from?

Part of it has to do with Tovell’s switch to the inside, where he’s played the past two games. He played inside linebacker last year for the Cajuns without this sort of production, but that was in a different defensive scheme.

But coach Mark Hudspeth is also convinced that maybe this ability has been there all along, and it’s just taken the Cajuns awhile to find it.

“We’re bringing him a little bit more. And when you bring him, he’s really effective,” Hudspeth said. “He’s a good pass rusher. And when you blitz, you have to be a good pass rusher.

“You’re not going to be coming unimpeded, you’re going to be blocked also. He’s done a good job defeating blocks and getting to the quarterback, and getting not only sacks but pressures.”

Tovell, for his part, thinks much of his production can be credited to the secondary locking down the receivers and the defensive line being where it’s supposed to be.

But the fact of the matter remains that he is a completely different animal than he has been at any point in his career, and he has another opportunity to add to his growing résumé as a pass rusher this week.

South Alabama has been among the league’s worst teams at protecting the passer, allowing 21 sacks in eight games.

Nearly two thirds of those sacks have been given up against Sun Belt competition, with Troy (six sacks), Arkansas State (five) and Texas State (three) all getting after the Jaguars’ passer.

Who knows if Tovell will be able to keep his current pace up.

But the Cajuns will take this new version of their steady linebacker for as long as he’s able to keep it going.

—Luke Johnson

FOUR DOWNS: Luke Johnson preps you for midweek action

1: Haack attack?

The Cajuns will once again roll with Brooks Haack as their starting QB, though coach Mark Hudspeth said Jalen Nixon will still get some playing time. The Cajuns passing offense has been largely stagnant this year, and South Alabama as been fairly stingy against the pass. A big day would mean big things.

2: A Cajun special

The Cajuns special teams have enjoyed two straight banner weeks. They’ve blocked a punt in each of their past two games, had a couple of crucial punt returns, and have thrived in the kicking game. Pay close attention to the return game; South Alabama has allowed four punt returns of 30 or more yards this season.

3: Let’s just punt

One of the reasons both the Cajuns and Jaguars have struggled to score points (they’re both ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring) is their struggles on third downs. The Cajuns have converted only nine of their past 45; South Alabama is ranked last in the SBC in third-down conversion percentage (32%).

4: Man in the mirror

If anybody could understand the Cajuns first-half struggles, it’d be South Alabama. South Alabama has been outscored 164-85 in the first half this year, including a 24-7 deficit last week against Idaho. But they’ve also proven adept at finding a rally. Last week, the Jaguars scored 45 second-half points to win.

NUMBERS WORTH KNOWING

20: Tackles last week by USA linebacker Blake Dees

16.4: USA running back Xavier Johnson’s yards per carry last week

7: Touchdown catches by USA tight end Gerald Everett