LAFAYETTE — Motivation shouldn’t be a problem after what happened last year — or, for that matter, last week.
Desire? Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said his team has bounced back in this week’s workouts after a lackadaisical set of drills heading into last Saturday’s 35-14 humbling against Akron.
But all of that enthusiasm and mental preparation may not be enough Saturday, unless the Ragin’ Cajuns defense can find a way to slow one of the nation’s best offenses.
When the Cajuns (1-2) head north to take on longtime rival Louisiana Tech (2-2) at Joe Aillet Stadium at 6 p.m., they’ll go against a Bulldogs team that boasts a top-eight national rusher, a top-12 receiver and a top-15 passer.
With Kenneth Dixon, Trent Taylor and Jeff Driskel filling those roles, it’s almost an afterthought that the Bulldogs lead Conference USA in rushing defense, giving up only 112 yards per game and on paper matching up with the Cajuns’ offensive strength.
“This is an outstanding football team,” Hudspeth said of a Tech squad that snapped a two-game skid with a 27-17 road win at Florida International last Saturday. “They had a great chance to beat Kansas State (a triple overtime 39-33 loss). ... I watched that game, and they should have won that game. This will be a huge challenge going to Ruston.”
If Hudspeth’s players had any doubts about that, all they had to do was look back at last year’s video. The Cajuns were coming off an easy opening win over Southern and expectations were high — until Tech thrashed them 48-20 in a game that went from 7-7 to 41-7 in less than two quarters.
“They came in here with a chip on their shoulder,” Hudspeth said. “Our players know how they felt when that game was over last year. Tech played well, and we turned it over. They took it to us. We want to go up there and play much better, and we’ll need to.”
Dixon, the nation’s career rush leader (3,934 yards), broke an untouched 99-yard touchdown run for the Bulldogs’ first score in that game, on his way to a 184-yard night. Dixon had 169 yards, two rushing scores and a catch for a touchdown in the FIU win, giving him an NCAA-record-tying 11 three-touchdown games.
“Kenneth Dixon is special with the ball in his hands, whether he’s catching it or running with it,” Bulldogs coach Skip Holtz said. “It’s great to see him get that milestone because he’s such a humble young man.”
“It’s hard to pick one thing about him, but if you watch him, he’s a team leader,” Hudspeth said of Dixon. “He’s that guy that throws his team on his shoulders and says giddy up. He doesn’t mind being a leader.”
Hudspeth has been trying to find that leadership on his team in the past two weeks. The Cajuns looked solid offensively in their opening 40-33 loss at Kentucky and overwhelmed Northwestern State 44-17 in the home opener, but the Akron loss left many questions. UL-Lafayette’s offense was held to 285 yards and had four turnovers, while Akron took advantage of the Cajuns’ slow start and had a 134-8 total yard advantage after one quarter. The Zips had 12 first downs before the Cajuns managed their first.
“We talked about it the whole summer, the whole spring, how we wanted to start off every game playing fast,” said junior running back Elijah McGuire, who ranks 16th nationally in rush yards among active backs (2,458). “But we haven’t done that yet. I’m going to challenge these guys and myself to get off to a fast start on Saturday.”
McGuire was held to 83 rushing yards on 16 carries against Akron after a 162-yard, five-score game against the Demons.
“I liked (McGuire) as a freshman,” Holtz said. “As he matured and grew, you knew there was going to be a day when he got 25 touches a game. I think he is pretty electric with the ball under his arm.”
Tech held FIU to 52 rushing yards in last Saturday’s road win. UL-Lafayette had 178 rushing yards against the Bulldogs last year but hurt itself with three turnovers.
A bigger question for the Cajuns is at quarterback, with juniors Books Haack and Jalen Nixon once again vying for that starting role. Haack has started all three games and has thrown for 458 yards but doesn’t have a touchdown pass, while Dixon provided a second-half spark against Kentucky but has been slowed since with a shoulder injury.
“Brooks doesn’t make many mental mistakes, and he’s normally on point with his checks,” Hudspeth said. “Jalen’s played well when he’s been in there, but Brooks has, too. We have to make some tough decisions there.”
Tech doesn’t have that problem. The Bulldogs went to the collegiate version of the waiver wire and snapped up former Florida starter Jeff Driskel, who transferred after last season and was immediately eligible since he finished degree requirements with the Gators.
Driskel ranks 15th nationally in passing with 1,171 yards and leads Conference USA and is 10th nationally with 72 points accounted for. Taylor, the Bulldogs’ top receiver, is 11th nationally in receptions (7.8 per game) and is in the top 15 in receiving yardage (413).
Under Driskel’s leadership and with Dixon’s efforts, Tech is averaging 522.5 offensive yards (17th nationally and atop C-USA) including 319.3 yards per game in pass offense. The Bulldogs are averaging 40 points through three games.