ATLANTA — The Ragin’ Cajuns have been far from a perfect team two-thirds of the way through the regular season, but even as they sit at a middling 4-4, they have shown one quality that should make you think some good things are on the horizon: toughness.
Talk to coach Mark Hudspeth about what he looks for in a player, and the conversation will inevitably turn to this trait. Obviously Hudspeth is looking for big, fast and physical players first and foremost, but those tangible traits will only take a team so far.
He also wants them to have a hardened intangible edge.
There’s a reason for this. Toughness is a trait that can’t be coached. Coaches can try their best to coax it out of their team with grueling workouts and fourth-quarter drills in practice, but if it’s not there to begin with, it can’t really be manufactured.
And if the toughness isn’t there when things aren’t running smoothly, things can really get ugly.
On Saturday, momentum had decisively swung in Georgia State’s favor. In a game the Cajuns led 17-7 at one point, Georgia State stormed back to take a 21-17 lead.
What’s that saying about when the going gets tough?
The Panthers gained just 96 yards on their next five possessions as the Cajuns defense stiffened in the nick of time. The Cajuns offense did just enough to grind out six more points, and the result was a hard-fought 23-21 win.
The week before, the Cajuns were coming off a disappointing loss in which they were humiliated for 30 minutes by Arkansas State. They then proceeded to allow a bad Louisiana-Monroe team to put up 24 first-half points in wind and driving rain.
Toggle the toughness switch. The defense again stepped up, shutting out ULM in the second half and allowing the offense and special teams to do just enough for a hard-fought 30-24 win.
This isn’t a football clinic being put on by the Cajuns, but when the football side isn’t going the way you want it to, grit is a worthy substitute until you can get it figured out.
You can go a long way in this game with technically sound, highly athletic and well-coached players, and that should always be the model college teams strive for.
The real coup is when a team combines those qualities with a resolute will. It’s beautiful destruction when that happens. Beautiful, that is, unless you’re on the wrong side of it.
The flip side of that is what the Cajuns have been so far this season. Though they possess some brilliantly gifted athletes, it hasn’t all come together on the field. They’ve made costly and preventable errors. They’ve fallen into prolonged funks on both sides of the ball. Hudspeth and his staff have coaching decisions they’d like to have back.
But the toughness has been there all along. Despite often playing from behind early in games, the Cajuns have shown considerable fight once they’ve been backed into a corner.
Their season has paralleled those slow starts. The Cajuns dug themselves a hole in the first four games of the year, did not wilt and now are poised to get back on the right side of the .500 mark.
That they’ve clawed back to get where they are — especially considering how they’ve done it — shows some commendable mental fortitude.
For the Cajuns to reach the goals they insist are still in play, they have to get better at the football side of things. As good as toughness is, a winning team cannot sustain itself on toughness alone.
But that toughness has gifted the Cajuns with something that was in short supply not that long ago. The team many left for dead has hope.