LAFAYETTE — Apparently, getting off to a faster start in games is something Louisiana-Lafayette football team can work on in practice.
Coach Mark Hudspeth said replacing his team’s now-habitual sluggish starts with early game success is a focal point as the Ragin’ Cajuns (2-4, 1-1 Sun Belt) prepare to welcome league and in-state rival Louisiana-Monroe in Saturday’s 4 p.m. homecoming game at Cajun Field.
“Something we did last night, we didn’t just talk about it,” Hudspeth said at his Monday news gathering. “We made a point to start practice fast with great tempo; all the coaches were pushing guys harder at the beginning of practice, and we wanted to see guys executing early in practice. We wanted to simulate that, and I think over time that will pay off.”
The Cajuns have been outscored 125-76 in the first half this season. In its four losses to Kentucky, Akron, Louisiana Tech and Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette has been down a combined 101-35 after two quarters, and the Cajuns have trailed in those games by 23, 28, 29 and 27 points before second-half rallies.
On Tuesday, Arkansas State scored on three of its first four possessions on the way to a 34-7 halftime lead. UL-Lafayette scored two touchdowns and had two other golden opportunities while holding the Red Wolves to one second-half field goal but never got any closer than the 37-27 final.
“Our inexperience shows in a lot of places,” Hudspeth said. “Guys aren’t really comfortable when they first go out there. ... When they’ve gotten comfortable, they’ve really played well.”
Hudspeth said that playing from behind all season — the Cajuns were only up 14-7 against Northwestern State late in the first half and trailed Texas State 14-7 just before halftime in their two wins — has affected the play of junior quarterback Jalen Nixon. The Carencro product has started the past three games.
“That puts more pressure on an inexperienced quarterback,” Hudspeth said of the early deficits. “Instead of running some read option and doing stuff he’s good at, we go into two-minute offense most of the game. He can throw it well, but that’s not his forte. We’ve taken the ball out of his hands more than we’d like because of falling behind.”
The Cajuns enter Saturday’s game ranked 121st nationally out of 127 teams in turnover margin, giving up 1.33 more turnovers per game than their opponents. UL-Lafayette ranks last in the Sun Belt by a big margin in that category.
“That’s the No. 1 factor,” Hudspeth said. “You can throw all the other stats out the window. We’re around middle or top third in all the other stat categories, but where we are in turnover margin is the reason we’re sitting where we are — bar none.”
It’s not like the Cajuns have turned the ball over repeatedly. UL-Lafayette has lost only five fumbles in six games, and running backs have yet to fumble the ball away.
“That’s strong,” Hudspeth said of the zero lost fumbles in 167 carries by running backs.
But Cajuns quarterbacks have thrown eight interceptions. Even more telling, the UL-Lafayette defense has forced only five turnovers in six games: three interceptions and two fumbles.
“We have to create more turnovers defensively and give our guys the ball in great field position more,” Hudspeth said. “It’s not fancy; it’s who takes care of the football and who can put the football in the end zone. The good thing is last year we led the country in the last six games in fewest turnovers, so that’s our goal again.”
Trick or treat
With Saturday’s game falling on Halloween, UL-Lafayette athletic officials are setting up “trick or treat” in the tailgating areas of Cajun Field before the 4 p.m. kickoff.
Fans coming to the game are encouraged to bring their children (or themselves) in costume. The Cajuns are asking tailgaters to have candy available for children who take part in the Halloween festivities.
Cajuns officials are providing grass-area parking across Congress Street for all parents bringing children to “trick or treat” in the tailgating area, which will still be restricted to parking passes. Candy will also be handed out during the Cajun Walk at about 1:30 p.m.
Hud in green?
Hudspeth said that if his Cajuns win Saturday, he may break into costume postgame.
“I’m a Justice League guy,” he said. “I may be the Green Lantern. If we get a big win, I may be out in the tailgating areas getting candy after the game.”
Hudspeth said young sons Major and Captain won’t go dressed as “Coach Hud,” as they did last Halloween.
“I told them they may not get any candy this year if they do that,” Hudspeth joked. “Major’s going as John Cena. ... He’s a big wrestling fan right now.”
UL-Lafayette’s game at Georgia State on Nov. 7 was announced as part of the Sun Belt’s ESPN3 package. It will air online with a 1 p.m. kickoff. This Saturday’s ULM game also will appear on ESPN3. ... The only previous homecoming game the Cajuns have played on Halloween was also against ULM, in 1971 when UL-Lafayette took a 31-7 win. ... UL-Lafayette has won six of the past seven in the series with the Warhawks, but ULM won the last meeting at Cajun Field 31-28 in 2013.