LAFAYETTE — The scars are still there, festering wounds that have never really healed.
All the good things that happened during the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s 2013 football season are tinged by what happened Dec. 7, when South Alabama’s Jaguars did their best Pearl Harbor imitation on a shell-shocked Ragin’ Cajuns team.
A 30-8 humbling handed out by a Jaguars team that was 7-17 since joining the Sun Belt Conference still rankles the Cajuns veterans, who lost their chance at a first-ever all-to-themselves league championship in that Mobile contest.
“We win that game, we would have won outright,” senior receiver James Butler said. “Going into that game, we knew what the stakes were.”
“It’s been stewing on us,” senior linebacker Boris Anyama said. “We know that game would have made us outright champs, and given us the most wins in school history, so that hurt.”
UL-Lafayette gets its shot at redemption against USA, not to mention extending a three-game conference win streak, at its annual homecoming festivities. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. Saturday at Cajun Field as the Cajuns (4-3, 3-0) open a quintet of November games that they hope will lead to a Sun Belt trophy and a fourth straight bowl appearance.
The Cajuns squad already had eight wins and an invitation in their pocket to last year’s New Orleans Bowl when they closed the regular season at USA’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium in December. What they did not have was starting quarterback Terrance Broadway after he suffered a broken arm one week earlier against UL-Monroe.
By halftime, UL-Lafayette had three turnovers including a pick-six, had botched a first-half punt that led to USA’s first score, had allowed 248 offensive yards and had a 5-of-14, 49-yard performance from backup quarterback and first-time collegiate starter Brooks Haack.
“They outplayed us that night. They lined up and beat us,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “Obviously, we would have liked our chances better if we had our starting quarterback, but no excuses. They’re a very good football team, and coach (Joey) Jones does a great job.”
Jones got his USA team to bowl eligibility in its second year on the FBS level last season, and the Jaguars (5-2, 4-1) are in third place in the conference (second among bowl-eligible teams behind the unbeaten Cajuns). USA’s only losses came to top-ranked Mississippi State and to new Sun Belt member but bowl-ineligible Georgia Southern, and the Jaguars haven’t lost on the road this year — albeit that will be tested Saturday and in road games at Arkansas State and South Carolina before Thanksgiving.
The Jaguars lead the Sun Belt in scoring defense and bring a four-game win streak into Saturday’s contest. They also have a quarterback in senior transfer Brandon Bridge, who Hudspeth calls a sure-fire NFL prospect.
“He’s a big kid (6-5) that’s got a live arm, and you can tell he wants to throw it,” Hudspeth said. “He’s one of the strongest arms we’ve seen, and he’s got the best receiving corps we’ve seen this year without a doubt.”
Bridge has thrown for 1,280 yards and nine scores with only four interceptions. His completion percentage (50.5) is not what USA would prefer, but he’s managed an offense that has only seven turnovers the entire season. USA’s defense, meanwhile, has allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in seven games.
UL-Lafayette had that many rush scores in its last game, with Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each scoring four times in last Tuesday’s 55-40 victory over Arkansas State. Both went over the 100-yard rush mark, with McGuire going for 265 yards — the third-highest total in Cajuns history — on only 19 carries on his way to Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week and College Football Performance Award national Running Back of the Week honors. McGuire also leads the nation in yards per carry (9.43).
“That was the first game they were both 100 percent healthy and made it the entire game without getting dinged up,” Hudspeth said. “To be able to rotate like we’d want to rotate them, it’s great having those guys that can do that.”
The Cajuns put up 419 rush yards against ASU, 21/2 times what USA allows per game, and have run for 707 yards in two games. UL-Lafayette also did not lose a fumble for the third straight game and has had one turnover in that time, after committing 10 and ranking last in the nation in turnover margin through four games.
“We felt like our running game was going to be good,” Hudspeth said. “Look how we ran it against a very good Ole Miss defense (just under 200 yards). At that point, we couldn’t take care of the football.”
Broadway only threw 17 times last week for a season-low 102 yards, mostly due to a running game that had 14 double-digit yardage plays. The senior from Baton Rouge watched last year’s USA game from the sideline, his right arm in a sling.
“Our guys are motivated for this one,” Hudspeth said. “Terrance is motivated since he didn’t get the chance to play last year.”
The Cajuns have won all three homecoming games under Hudspeth, but will play three of their final four on the road. Still, their last four opponents have a combined 8-22 record entering the weekend, meaning that Saturday’s game would be a big step toward a possible unbeaten conference season.
“We’re not looking ahead,” Butler said after the big win over Arkansas State. “I don’t know if we improved ourselves, but we definitely showed a spark. We’re continuing to climb that ladder.”