UL-Monroe at UL-Lafayette: Why this game could determine how the Ragin’ Cajuns offense plays the rest of the season _lowres

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK -- University of Louisiana at Lafayette quarterback Jalen Nixon (6) watches from the sideline in the fourth quarter as UL-Lafayette falls to the University of Akron in an NCAA football game Saturday, September 26, 2015, at Cajun Field in Lafayette, La.

Next Level: The Ragin’ Cajuns need to create some room for Elijah McGuire

Saturday’s game ought to provide some insight into how the Ragin’ Cajuns approach the rest of the season offensively.

Louisiana-Monroe is going to play with eight and sometimes nine players near the line of scrimmage, daring the Cajuns to pass — because they do not want to get beaten by running back Elijah McGuire.

It was the same tactic Arkansas State used with a high degree of success last week, and it’ll probably be a look the Cajuns see the rest of the year.

McGuire finished with 32 rushing yards, his worst single-game total since gaining 31 yards on seven carries at Boise State last year.

Worse was the Cajuns passing game, which consistently failed to connect on passes over the top of that bunched-in defensive alignment.

The Cajuns had their opportunities — Jamal Robinson beat his man twice on vertical routes — but couldn’t cash in. What was left was a series of third-and-longs the Cajuns could not convert.

On 10 first-half possessions, the Cajuns gained 12 or fewer yards on seven of them. They had seven situations of third-and-8 or longer and converted one of them.

That’s got to change if the Cajuns want to establish any sort of offensive rhythm. But how will they do it if the Warhawks stack the box like Arkansas State did?

The passes over the top are available, but they’re low-percentage throws, and they gave QB Jalen Nixon fits against Arkansas State.

The Cajuns likely will have to find a more creative way to loosen up the defense. Perhaps it’ll be the same way they ended up finding room against Arkansas State: by targeting McGuire as a receiver out of the backfield.

Whatever it looks like, the Cajuns need to find an answer soon.

Four Downs

1. Air ball

UL-Monroe comes into this game chucking the ball around the yard 38 times per game, a strategy it used quite effectively against the Cajuns last season when it completed 39-of-56 passes for 483 yards. The Cajuns are anticipating much of the same from the Warhawks this time around, but ...

2. Wet ball

... With forecasts calling for near-certain rainshowers throughout the game, passing the ball could become more difficult than it otherwise would be. This could be a boon for a Cajuns rushing attack that is averaging 232 yards per game. UL-Monroe, meanwhile, is ranked 10th in the Sun Belt in rushing.

3. Will this be the day?

The Cajuns have only finished one game with a positive number in turnover margin. Just like last year, it’s been a huge reason why they’ve struggled early. They turned it around in the second half last year. The Warhawks have also struggled with turnovers this season, committing 11 in their first six games.

4. Do or die

Coach Mark Hudspeth has said his team still has all its goals in front of it, but in order for that to continue meaning anything, this game is a must-win. For the Cajuns to have any shot of competing for a conference title, they certainly can’t drop a home game to a 1-6 team that just lost to lowly Idaho.