LAFAYETTE — The old adage about conference play signifying the start of a new season fits quite well for the Louisiana-Lafayette football team this weekend.
Of course, the Ragin’ Cajuns would prefer not to have an 0-0 restart against a team whose strengths appear to provide a gut punch to their own weaknesses.
When the Cajuns open Sun Belt Conference play at 6 p.m. Saturday against Georgia State at Cajun Field, the game will match the Panthers’ league-leading passing attack against the worst statistical pass defense in the league. UL-Lafayette (1-3) has allowed 268.5 passing yards per game this season and more than 290 yards per game during the team’s current three-game losing streak.
“Putting more pressure on the quarterback will help,” junior outside linebacker Tyren Alexander said. “Getting better coverage will help us. We have to play with passion, and that’s something we’ve kind of faded away from.”
Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth, during last week’s open date and this week’s run-up to conference play, has called for his team to renew the passion of the past three seasons. That passion resulted in the most successful three-year stretch in program history, not to mention three straight New Orleans Bowl wins.
“Playing with that passion is the reason we’ve been 9-4 the last three years,” Hudspeth said. “We had a team that came back with a lot of expectations, and those expectations may have preceded getting the work done. We thought we’d arrived for some reason.
“Last week, I felt that passion was back. They’re passionate about showing how good a football team we are. We started having a little more fun at practice.”
The three weeks preceding the open week — lopsided losses to Louisiana Tech (48-20), Ole Miss (56-15) and Boise State (34-9) — were definitely not fun. The only reason the Cajuns haven’t given up three straight 500-yard performances is that Boise took a knee on the game’s final play two weeks ago and slipped back to 499 yards.
The UL-Lafayette defense has no fumble recoveries and one interception in 140 opponent pass attempts through four games. The Cajuns’ 1-to-10 turnover ratio is by far the nation’s worst — after they spent most of last season ranked in the top 10 in turnover margin.
“We work on that in practice,” Alexander said. “We have turnover periods, and that’s a main focus in practice. Us getting turnovers gives the offense more opportunities. If we’d had more turnovers, the offense may have been more productive. We have to help them out just as much as they help us out.”
The offense has recorded only two touchdowns in the first three quarters of the three recent losses, but that unit gets a boost with the return of senior receiver Jamal Robinson; he missed most of the past three games after minor knee surgery. Robinson, who had seven catches for 141 yards and two scores in the season’s first five quarters, was back at full-speed practice this week.
Robinson and quarterback Terrance Broadway (676 yards, four TDs) likely will have to get connected again in a hurry, because the visiting Panthers (1-3, 0-1) lean even more on the aerial attack than they did last season, their first in the Sun Belt. GSU threw for 298 yards and hung with the Cajuns for most of three quarters last year in Atlanta before falling 35-21.
This year, junior-college transfer quarterback Nick Arbuckle has the Panthers ranked eighth nationally in passing (331.5 yards per game), and he has 1,315 yards and nine touchdowns.
“We saw two quarterbacks from them last year,” Hudspeth said of the Panthers, who went 0-12 in coach Trent Miles’ first season last year and were picked 10th of 11 teams in this year’s Sun Belt preseason poll. “Now with Arbuckle, they have consistency. He does a great job of spreading the ball around. He’s very accurate.”
Conversely, the Panthers also struggle to stop the pass, a big contributor to the 41.0 points per game GSU has allowed. The combination of struggling defenses left oddsmakers to put Saturday’s over-under at 67 points — one of the 10 highest in the nation this week.
Even Air Force’s option-oriented attack was 12-for-15 for 224 yards and two scores through the air in its 48-38 win in the Georgia Dome three weeks ago. But the Panthers were more sound defensively in their previous outing despite a 45-14 loss at Washington — a game that Georgia State led 14-0 at halftime.
It wasn’t lost on the Cajuns that the same Air Force team that narrowly topped Georgia State whipped Boise State 28-14 last week, only days after the Broncos left UL-Lafayette as blue as their blue-turfed field. But Hudspeth said he has seen a difference in the week off.
“It’s a challenge for us because we haven’t played as well as we’ve liked,” he said. “We think we’re really feeling like we’re due. After watching games this past weekend, that assured me we’re not as far off as we thought we might be. We’re just very fortunate we haven’t played conference games.”