LAFAYETTE — For the first time in five seasons, and for the first time since Mark Hudspeth took over as coach, Louisiana-Lafayette’s regular-season football finale will indeed end its season.
When the Ragin’ Cajuns (4-7, 3-4 Sun Belt) host Troy (3-8, 2-5) at 4 p.m. Saturday at Cajun Field, they’ll know that, when the final horn sounds, it will be over.
None of the revelry and excitement of the New Orleans Bowl, which the Cajuns won each of the past four years. No return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which has become a de-facto home field. No bowl game of any kind, even though the Sun Belt has more bowl tie-ins now than at any point in its history.
The fact that UL-Lafayette won’t even finish with a break-even record is sobering to players and staff who have become used to bowl trips — and the couple of extra weeks of practice that not only prepare the team for its bowl game but give it a jump-start on next season.
Even with all that — not to mention the squad’s three-game losing streak — Hudspeth said his team will be ready for the Trojans, which his senior class has beaten every year.
“To see how they’ve responded has been outstanding,” Hudspeth said. “They could have turned the faucet off and just ridden it out, but they’ve still come every day and worked hard and want to win. I definitely like what I’ve seen this week, and we need to go out on a positive note as we go into the offseason.”
That won’t be easy against a Troy squad that broke out of some offensive doldrums a month ago and had a three-game stretch that featured 52, 41 and 51 points. But Hudspeth said it’s on defense that the Trojans have made the biggest strides since getting torched for more than 36 points and 450 yards per game last season.
“They’re going to be really good on offense soon,” Hudspeth said. “They’ve got a quarterback that can really spin it and a good stable of receivers. But defense is where they’ve made their money. They’ve got a very creative scheme, and they’re doing an awful lot of good things defensively.”
Sophomore quarterback Brandon Silvers has thrown for 2,058 yards and 16 touchdowns; he completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 293 yards per game in that three-game stretch.
The Cajuns are still searching for answers at quarterback, even though junior Brooks Haack has started the past five games.
Jalen Nixon has been ineffective in spot duty in the past three games, and the brightest spot recently was a final drive spearheaded by redshirt freshman Jordan Davis in last week’s 28-7 loss at Appalachian State. Davis hit all seven of his attempts for 60 yards in that march and capped it with a 20-yard scoring run with 57 seconds left.
Even with that, UL-Lafayette was limited to 42 rushing yards (mostly because of six sacks) and 246 offensive yards by Appalachian State’s Sun Belt-leading defense. The single-digit point total was the lowest since a 55-7 loss at Georgia opened the 2010 season.
The Trojans also are coming off a disappointing loss, falling 31-21 at improving Georgia State a week after taking a 45-10 thumping from Georgia Southern in the home finale. Those losses stifled the momentum of two high-scoring wins and a 44-41 overtime loss at Appalachian State.
“Win-loss wise, we’re not happy where we’re at,” said first-year coach Neal Brown, who returned to Troy after stints as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and Kentucky. Brown, the nation’s second-youngest head coach in the FBS ranks, was in that same role for the Trojans during part of a run that included five straight Sun Belt titles.
Hudspeth said Haack will start and Davis will see some action in Saturday’s finale, but he quickly added that the Troy game will not feature a lot of new faces.
“This is not going to be a spring tryout,” he said. “This is still ‘play to win the game.’ We’re going to play Jordan some because we think he might help us win the game.”
Prominently involved will be a 19-man senior group that finishes as the second-winningest class in school history, behind only last year’s group, which won 36 games in four years. This group will be trying to grab win No. 32 and finish with a 22-9 Sun Belt record.
The only senior that definitely won’t play is offensive lineman Mykhael Quave, who had a streak of 43 straight starts snapped when he tore a rotator cuff in an early-season loss at Louisiana Tech. If he had stayed healthy, he could have tied older brother Daniel’s school mark of 52 straight starts. Instead, his absence set off a season-long chain reaction of changes in the offensive front that punched a hole in the Cajuns’ offensive production.
“Mykhael was that natural-born leader that you miss,” Hudspeth said. “But this senior class will be defined by this body of work. Not many senior classes can say they’ve done what they did.
“I reminded them that when they started the year they had 12 or 13 games left, then it was eight or nine, and now these guys are about to be pushed out into the world. Saturday will be the last time this complete team will be in a room together, so they’re anxious to play well and go out a winner.”
The Cajuns also have some individual milestones on the line. Junior Elijah McGuire needs 28 yards to post the ninth 1,000-yard rushing season in school history, and he needs three receptions to become the first Cajuns back with 100 career catches. Senior receiver Jamal Robinson can continue to climb into the top three in many career receiving categories. And Hudspeth is one win short of tying for fourth on the all-time coaching wins list in only his fifth season.
That’s small consolation, especially after UL-Lafayette’s only appearances in Division I bowl games came in the past four seasons.
“We’re doing a lot of good stuff,” Hudspeth said, “but we’re not doing enough things to end up on top. We’re not doing the things you need to do to win games.”