LAFAYETTE — Not that many seasons ago, Troy football was the gold standard in the Sun Belt Conference.
The Trojans joined the league in 2004, and by 2006 they shared their first league title and made their first Division I bowl appearance in the New Orleans Bowl. For the next four years, Troy either won or shared the Sun Belt title and made three more bowl appearances.
During that stretch, a series of wins over Louisiana-Lafayette helped earn those titles and bowls. One stretch in particular, when Troy scored 138 points in three games and included a 48-3 win, was painful for Ragin’ Cajuns fans.
Oh, how times have changed.
Now it’s the Cajuns who ride into Troy, Alabama, on a three-game series winning streak, and a win over the Trojans at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the regular-season finale would keep UL-Lafayette on track for its fourth straight nine-win season. The Cajuns (7-4, 6-1) are also on an almost-certain path to the Dec. 20 New Orleans Bowl, where they’ve won three straight as one of only six schools nationally to have bowl wins in the past three seasons.
Bowl games are becoming a distant memory for the Troy program.
The Trojans (3-8, 3-4) will finish up a fourth straight non-winning season Saturday and will say goodbye to 24-year coach Larry Blakeney in large part because of those struggles. But they will do it at Larry Blakeney Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium, and UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth knows that will provide motivation for the hosts.
“Any team in that situation is going to play for your coach,” said Hudspeth, whose squad still harbors hope of sharing the Sun Belt title for a second straight year. “You’re going to get a team that’s going to play with an unbelievable edge.”
Blakeney had more Sun Belt wins (49) than the rest of the league coaches combined entering the season. And despite the struggles of the past few seasons, he still has the second-best win percentage among active Sun Belt coaches (.642, with a record of 52-29).
Hudspeth (.767, 23-7) now holds the top mark, after his head coaching career began when he turned North Alabama into a Division II power. A few hours south, Blakeney did the same at Troy years earlier, before the Trojans moved up to Division I-AA and made seven playoff trips before adding success in the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks.
Blakeney has downplayed his swan song’s effect on his squad, which started 1-8 before beating Georgia State and Idaho by double-digit margins in its past two games.
“We’ve got to try to separate that,” Blakeney said. “The main thing is the game and preparing these guys to play as well as they can. We will have to play our best game to win against UL-Lafayette. We have played them close the last couple of years, but have not gotten it done.”
The Cajuns had 21-6 and 41-29 leads in last year’s game at Cajun Field before holding on for a 41-36 win — the seventh of eight in a row they posted. Trevence Patt knocked down a fourth-down pass to complete a goal-line stand in the final two minutes.
UL-Lafayette would be on a similar streak this year had it not been for a big hiccup last Saturday. Appalachian State’s 35-16 win in the Cajuns’ home finale snapped a six-game run that followed a 1-3 start and put UL-Lafayette in position for another league title.
Now the Cajuns have to win Saturday and hope Louisiana-Monroe can give league newcomer Georgia Southern (8-3, 7-0) its first league loss.
“To be honest, we’ll focus on what we can control,” Hudspeth said.
“We’re not focused on what happens there,” senior tight end Larry Pettis said, “and we’re not focused on the New Orleans Bowl right now. We’re focused on just bouncing back and trying to get a win against Troy.”
The Cajuns offense accounted for 400 or more yards in every other Sun Belt game this year but was limited to 259 yards and a 3-of-15 third-down performance against the Mountaineers. UL-Lafayette had one first down and 14 yards in the fourth quarter, when Appalachian State scored two clinching touchdowns.
Conversely, UL-Lafayette’s defense entered last Saturday allowing only 102 rushing yards per game, before the Mountaineers blistered it for 232 rush yards and 427 offensive yards.
“We knew they were really good, but they were better than I thought they would be,” Hudspeth said. “Offensively, we never could find any answers, and defensively we didn’t get any sacks and not many pressures.”
That defense will be charged with slowing a Trojans offense that has found itself in the past two weeks against Georgia State (45-21) and Idaho (34-17). In those games, against the Sun Belt’s bottom two teams, Troy had 971 yards, including 620 rushing. Jordan Chunn had 189 of those rushing yards in the win over Idaho.
“Some of their young kids are starting to develop,” Hudspeth said. “They’ve had a tough schedule, but they’ve put up points. They’re about as dangerous as they’ve always been.”
The Cajuns’ primary danger is matching last year’s late-season swoon, when they lost their final two regular-season games after an 8-2 start.
“We’re not worried about that,” said Pettis, part of an 18-man senior class that is the school’s most successful with 34 wins. “The thing about our team, we can bounce back. Us seniors got together, and we all said we wanted to finish this right. We’re not going to let that happen again.”