LAFAYETTE — Mark Hudspeth admits that, until recently, he didn’t know much about Louisiana Tech.
The Louisiana-Lafayette coach had never faced the Bulldogs in either his playing or coaching career, none of his players have ever lined up across the field from a Tech team and only one member of his Ragin’ Cajuns staff has ever been in a Cajuns-Bulldogs game, although some have faced Tech while at other coaching stops.
“They’re a team I’m not very familiar with,” Hudsepth said this week, “but I’m very familiar with the success they’ve had as a program ... a lot of tradition and great players from there. And they’ve been very successful against us.”
Bulldogs coach Skip Holtz likely had to do the same type research, because he’s never faced the Cajuns and nobody on his staff has coached against UL-Lafayette since coming to Ruston.
“When you look at them on offense and defense, it is not surprising to see why they have been to three bowl games and why they are picked to win the Sun Belt,” Holtz said. “I think they have done an excellent job down there ... I think they have built a very good program.”
Both coaches have likely been reminded, mostly by their fan bases, how important beating the other used to be, and how important it will be again Saturday, when the Cajuns (1-0) and the Bulldogs (0-1) square off at 6 p.m. at Cajun Field — a place where UL-Lafayette hasn’t beaten Tech since 1995.
“Our players know the importance of this game,” Hudspeth said. “I’m not too good at math, but that’s about 19 or 20 years since we beat them here. We got that point across to them early in the spring and all summer. They know what’s at stake as well as our coaching staff. We’re going to be very well prepared to play the game.”
“It is fan- and media-driven,” Holtz said, “but I think these are rivalry games. I love these games. I think it creates a lot of excitement for our players.”
The teams haven’t met since a 2004 meeting in Ruston when the Bulldogs held on 24-20, and the Bulldogs won the previous five meetings before that. The last Cajuns’ victory came in 1996, also in Ruston, when UL-Lafayette and future NFL standout Jake Delhomme led a wild 37-31 victory.
Delhomme has fond memories of the Cajuns-Bulldogs series — he won four straight over Tech as a starting quarterback from 1993-96 — and can still remember details from even his freshman-year win in 1993.
“We were running out the clock, and we called a naked bootleg on third down,” he said. “We needed to get a first down, and I was running toward our sideline. I can still remember (former coach) Gerald Broussard with his arms up in the air right next to me when we got the first down and we could kneel on the ball.”
It’s those moments that haven’t happened in a series that was once among the state’s most heated but now has been staged only twice since 2000. The two programs were conference partners in both the Gulf States and Southland Conferences for decades, for a brief stint (1993-95) in the Big West Conference for football, and for sports other than football in the American South and Sun Belt leagues.
The series waned when Tech bolted the Sun Belt for the now-defunct Western Athletic Conference in 2001, the same year that the Sun Belt added football. When the WAC folded last season, the Bulldogs joined Conference USA — a league that now features five teams who were Sun Belt members as recently as two years ago. Neither C-USA nor the Sun Belt can claim bragging rights on either logic or geography in the recent conference shuffles.
“It’s such a shame,” said Delhomme. “I don’t mean to slight any other schools, but these two teams need to play.
“It was so much fun, and there was so much excitement. The whole time I was in school we played six games against state teams (he was 4-0 vs. Tech and 2-0 vs. Tulane), and every time it was a big game.”
It could be big again Saturday, because both teams have high aspirations. The Cajuns, coming off three straight 9-4 seasons and three R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl wins, are looking to better those marks with an experienced and senior-laden team, while the Bulldogs are looking to shake last year’s 4-8 mark and get back to the 8-5 and 9-3 seasons of 2011-12.
Tech was on the wrong end of a 48-16 thumping at fourth-ranked Oklahoma last weekend at the same time the Cajuns were blasting FCS member Southern 45-6.
“In all fairness, we didn’t play Oklahoma in game one,” Hudspeth said. “After going back and watching, it was evident we have a lot of work to do in a lot of areas.”
The first task for UL-Lafayette is slowing down tailback Kenneth Dixon, who has 2,153 career rush yards and a 5.87 average per carry. Dixon broke Marshall Faulk’s NCAA record for rushing as a freshman in 2012 when he had 27 rush touchdowns — a number that fell to four in an injury-marred sophomore season.
“He’s a load,” Hudspeth said of Dixon. “He popped some runs against one of the top four teams in the country.”
Against OU, transfer quarterback Cody Sokol was 22 of 36 for 191 yards and two scores.
The Bulldogs defense, meanwhile, will have to contend with the Cajuns’ two-headed rushing attack after Tech ranked 91st nationally in rush defense last year. Elijah McGuire went for 129 yards on only 13 carries against Southern while workhorse Alonzo Harris enters the game fourth all-time on UL-Lafayette’s career list (2,570 yards).
Cajuns quarterback Terrance Broadway also moved up to third on the school’s career lists for passing yards and touchdowns against SU during a 20-of-32, 237-yard performance.
“They are a very explosive offensive football team that can put up a lot of points,” Holtz said.