Run the ball at will and effectively throw the ball when necessary, and it will lead to more than 30 points per game on the scoreboard.
For the most part, that’s been the highly successful equation the Louisiana-Lafayette football team has followed under coach Mark Hudspeth. The Cajuns racked up 27 wins in three years while scoring roughly 34 points per game, largely thanks to an outstanding rushing attack and an opportunistic passing game.
Four games through 2014, the Cajuns haven’t quite gotten their math right. They’re averaging just 22.3 points per game. While their ground game has been effective at times it hasn’t been able to take off while the team has tried to fight out of early deficits. With teams focusing on stopping the pass, the Cajuns have largely been shut down through the air.
To get the offense back where it has been in previous years, the Cajuns are focusing on the first part of the equation.
“When we’ve been effective running the football, we’ve been pretty good,” Hudspeth said. “But we’ve also been good enough, when you think about last year when the running game wasn’t there, we’ve been good enough in the pass game.
“I still think we’re that type of team where we take what the defense gives us. But we still want to be able to run the football and get our backs going.”
The Cajuns have actually been successful when they’ve run the ball this year. Their 5.1 yards per carry ranks second in the Sun Belt Conference, and their overall average yards per game ranks fourth.
But the Cajuns have been taken out of using the ground game as a primary means of gaining yards by falling into an early hole. It’s caused a lot of quick drives for the Cajuns offensively, which has in turn led to a worn-out defensive unit.
“Hopefully we can get (running backs Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire) going a little bit,” Hudspeth said. “Get some rhythm about our offense a little bit, then mix in the pass and some quarterback runs. Put some drives together and keep our defense off the field.”
Some of the offense’s slow start has to be attributed to the play of senior quarterback Terrance Broadway, who is on pace for his worst statistical year as the Cajuns starting quarterback, but Hudspeth cautions about putting too much on his shoulders.
Broadway has struggled to meet the lofty expectations created by his own success on the field, tossing three more interceptions than touchdowns so far this season.
Broadway was not made available to the media this week, but Hudspeth thought the reasoning behind both his and the running game’s struggles to work effectively together were the same.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the type of games we’ve been in,” Hudspeth said. “We’ve been behind and having to play catch-up, trying to get back into games. When you’re trying to get your team back into games, you press and you probably do some things you normally wouldn’t do in a close game.”
The stats support Hudspeth’s rationale. Five of Broadway’s seven interceptions this season have come with his team trailing by 15 or more points, and his 93.9 rating in those situations is nearly 25 points worse than his overall rating.
Broadway has taken a lion’s share of the blame for the Cajuns’ poor start offensively, both from himself in post-game news conferences and from many fans who have been similarly frustrated with an offense that has been stuck in neutral.
That’s par for the course for the starting quarterback of a 1-3 team, Hudspeth said, though he wishes that wasn’t the case.
“He can’t listen to that and he can’t worry about that,” Hudspeth said. “Quarterbacks get too much praise when it goes good and too much criticism when it goes bad. That’s the nature of the position and I’ve tried to tell him that.”
With that acknowledgement comes a little optimism, though.
“As our team gets better and our defense gets better and we take care of the ball better and score more touchdowns and become more productive, I think people will change their mind,” Hudspeth said.
The team has had two weeks to prepare for Georgia State. The extra time has allowed both players and coaches to digest the first four games of the season and to study exactly what’s gone wrong.
Each player said virtually the same thing: all it takes is one missed assignment for a play to go wrong, and that’s happened too often this season.
“We’re close. We just have to become more of a unit. It always seems like we’re one player away from it being a breakout play,” said junior left tackle Mykhael Quave.
“It can just be one guy on one play and it can mess it up. We know we’re a powerful offense, all we need to do is get rolling,” said senior tight end Larry Pettis.
“Those little mistakes added up to us not making explosive plays and playing at our top level,” said senior wide receiver Jamal Robinson.
It’s a fairly simple equation the Cajuns have used in the last three seasons, but simple equations require solid execution, otherwise they become more complicated than they should be.