LAFAYETTE — When the Louisiana-Lafayette football team watched Georgia State’s pass-happy offense on film, it wasn’t just focusing on prolific quarterback Nick Arbuckle.
To do that would be to ignore why he’s prolific in the first place. Slowing down the Georgia State passing attack is much more complex than focusing just on Arbuckle because of how he spreads the ball around.
“I think he utilizes all the receivers around him and all his skill in general,” senior linebacker Dominique Tovell said. “You see him spreading the ball around pretty well, he even throws it to the running backs here and there.”
While freshman Penny Hart (41 catches) and junior Robert Davis (36) have received the majority of Arbuckle’s attention, 16 Panthers have caught passes this season, including nine that have caught seven or more.
Tight end Keith Rucker has caught 18 passes for three touchdowns this season, and has been used more frequently lately with 11 catches for two scores in his last two weeks. Running backs Demarcus Kirk, Kyler Neal and Taz Bateman have combined to catch 19 passes out of the backfield this season as well.
And with Arbuckle serving as the hub of all air traffic in the Georgia Dome, the Panthers have rolled up 335.9 passing yards per game, which is ranked 13th nationally.
“He’s just an accomplished passer,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “The guy is a cool, cool cucumber now. He sits back there, they give him good protection, he’s got a quick release.
“They’re going to spread the field, they’re going to be in empty, they’re going to be in four wide (receiver offensive sets). They’re going to create a lot of lanes and he’s a very accurate passer.”
The best way to defend the many-faced attack is if the defense is playing as one cohesive unit. Or, as Hudspeth succinctly put it: “Everybody’s got to do their job.”
Cajuns safety Tracy Walker was asked this week if the secondary was looking forward to the challenge of going up against such a high-powered passing game. Or, at least he would’ve been if he wouldn’t have cut the question off mid-stream.
“It’s the whole team,” Walker interrupted. “The whole team’s got to be on one accord, because anything can happen. It might not just be the secondary.
“The whole defense itself has to be on the same exact page.”
That includes the pass rush. If there’s been one area where the Georgia State passing offense has been vulnerable this season, it’s been in protecting Arbuckle.
The Panthers have given up 21 sacks in seven games. Their rate of three sacks allowed per game is one of the worst in the country, ranked 114th nationally.
“Our best pass coverage this week is going to be our pass rush,” Hudspeth said. “Any time you leave an outstanding quarterback back there with a lot of time to throw the ball? You’re going to have problems. You can only cover four or five receivers running around for so long.”
The Cajuns haven’t exactly gotten after the passer consistently this season, but a switch last week to insert pass rusher Darzil Washington into the starting lineup paid immediate dividends against another pass-happy team in ULM.
Though Washington didn’t finish with a sack, the Cajuns defense turned in a season-best five sacks last week, with three of those sacks coming from the defensive line. That is good news for a defensive line that had combined for just three sacks in the first six games.
“You always want to put pressure on a quarterback early,” said Tovell, who leads the Cajuns with five sacks this season. “That’s going to cause a lot of conflict in any offense. … If you get pressure on the quarterback and big defensive lineman in the backfield, it’s going to cause trouble with any offense in the country.”
Of course, as much as Walker downplayed it, the Cajuns secondary will play a large role in how Saturday unfolds, especially if the Cajuns pass rush looks more like it did in the first six weeks than it did last week.
Though it had some early issues with man coverage, the Cajuns secondary has been playing much better as of late.
Sun Belt Conference teams are completing just 43 percent of their passes against the Cajuns, and that’s not just one bad performance weighing the others down. None of the Cajuns three conference opponents have managed better than a 45.7 completion rate.
While that’s not likely to continue this week against Arbuckle and Georgia State, it’s a step in the right direction for a unit that had its share of struggles earlier this season. Walker chalks it up to one word.
“It’s experience,” Walker said. “We’re all gaining game experience, we have a very young secondary. That game experience is helping us develop as players mentally and physically.”
That experience will be put to the test Saturday by Arbuckle and his group of friends.