LAFAYETTE — The plan for Louisiana-Lafayette going into last week’s game against Northwestern State was to continue the natural progression for their quarterback group after a solid, if unspectacular, first game against Kentucky.
But plans don’t always work out. Northwestern State’s defensive alignments didn’t give the Cajuns many options last week as far as the passing game is concerned.
“They had everybody up on the line,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We had two options; we could run the zone … or we could keep throwing fade balls. We had a couple (of) big passes … but the run game was so successful, it’s just like throw it and get a chance at an incompletion where you’re going to get 10 yards on a run or eight.
“It was just why throw it? It’s hard to judge (the passing game) because we didn’t throw it a bunch the other night.”
Didn’t throw it a bunch is an understatement. The Cajuns ran 51 offensive plays in their 44-17 win, and only 12 of them were designed pass plays. But even the small sample size against an FCS opponent offers a small glimpse into whether the Cajuns accomplished their goal of progressing the passing game.
The obvious answer, with starter Brooks Haack completing seven of his eight attempts for 187 yards, is that it took a step in the right direction.
“Man, the guy was dead on,” Hudspeth said of Haack. “He threw the ball extremely well when we asked him to throw.”
Haack was solid in his first start of the season, throwing for 194 yards on 37 attempts against Kentucky. But there were some things he and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson wanted to clean up after watching the film.
First was Haack’s footwork. Too often against Kentucky he felt the pressure get to him and it resulted in Haack starting his throws off a poor base, leading to uncharacteristic inaccuracy from a quarterback who completed 20 of 23 passes in spot duty last year.
“I needed to step into my throws a bit more and get my feet right,” Haack said. “There were some that I had sail on me and didn’t exactly put it in the right spot that I needed to. Coach Johnson and I talked about it. I definitely needed to improve my footwork, because wherever your feet take you, that’s where you’re going to throw.”
Some of that flawed footwork can be attributed to the Wildcats pass rush, Hudspeth said.
“When you’ve got seven people running at you and wanting to hurt you, hit you really hard, it sort of makes you a little jitterish,” Hudspeth said. “That’s where you’ve got to keep your composure and trust your mechanics.
“You can move around in the pocket, that’s nothing wrong. You do that to find throwing lanes and buy a little time. What you don’t want to do is move around the pocket with jitterish feet.”
One particular play against Northwestern State summed up the relationship between the line and the quarterback’s mechanics.
Midway through the second quarter, the Cajuns picked up the Northwestern State defensive pressure and gave Haack a clean pocket to work in. Haack surveyed the field, moved up and to his left as the pocket started to collapse, then took a quiet step forward and hummed a rocket between four defenders to receiver Devin Scott for a big gain.
The Cajuns have also tried to create opportunities for their quarterbacks to develop. One of those ways is by throwing in traditional running situations to try and catch the defense off guard.
Against Kentucky, they took shots deep downfield on three separate occasions where they faced a third and short. Through two games, the Cajuns are also frequently passing on first down, when defenses are keying heavily on running back Elijah McGuire.
The Cajuns, as a team, are 16-of-19 for 287 yards on first down, which is made even more remarkable when considering Haack misfired on his first two attempts on first downs this season, meaning the Cajuns have completed 16 of their last 17 throws on first down.
“We’re trying to keep people off balance a little bit,” Hudspeth said. “If we can be effective on first down throwing the ball? I think it’ll make us even more effective running the ball.”
There’s still some work to be done on the passing game, especially since the Cajuns didn’t need to use it much last week. But Hudspeth knows there will come a time when it’s necessary, maybe sooner rather than later.
“It’ll be probably a true measuring stick when we play Akron, to see if we can continue getting better,” Hudspeth said. “We’ve got to be able to throw the football to be effective. We didn’t have to the other night, but we’re not going to be able to line up and just do that consistently all year.
“There’s going to be a time when teams are going to make you throw the football … and we’re going to have to be able to do that.”