LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth briskly walked up and down the ranks with his linebackers at practice this week, getting in their ear to be violent when they attacked the ball.
Hudspeth and defensive coordinator James Willis directed their players to use everything they had to strip the ball out of the opponent’s hands. For five minutes, the linebackers went back and forth ripping at each other’s forearms and biceps, trying to pry the ball free.
After two weeks of turnover-less football, the Cajuns defenders had a quota to meet in practice. The goal included what coaches called “shots on ball,” and they wanted a ton of them this week.
“That’s just turnover attempts — us ripping the ball, us swatting the ball down,” sophomore linebacker Kevin Fouquier said. “That’s a big emphasis.”
Added Hudspeth: “They have a competition of seeing how many attempts to get the ball out they have daily and how many turnovers we cause daily. We try to get three a day defensively.”
Turnovers and third-down conversions have been a bit of an issue for this Cajuns squad, particularly in last week’s 48-20 loss to Louisiana Tech.
The Cajuns went the entire game without forcing a turnover, a problem that was compounded by an offense that turned the ball over three times. Their minus-5 turnover margin through two games is the worst in the Sun Belt.
The other problem came on third downs. The Cajuns weren’t terrible as a whole, allowing the Bulldogs to convert at a 43 percent rate, but they had major failures on third-and-long that led to scoring drives.
“There were a couple long ones that you were really feeling good about your chances of getting the ball back, and then they get just enough, just barely make it to extend a drive,” Hudspeth said. “A couple of just back-breakers.”
The Bulldogs picked up 19 yards on third-and-12 to keep alive a nine-play, 61-yard touchdown drive midway through the second quarter. They converted third-and-10 on their next possession with a 55-yard completion from their 10-yard line, leading to a lengthy drive that would end in a chip-shot field goal and leave almost no time on the clock for the Cajuns.
Both conversions came on the third play of the drive. Had the Cajuns gotten off the field, they would’ve likely done so with a chance at giving their offense great field position.
The issue isn’t all with the Cajuns secondary. The pass rush has noticeably lacked bite, especially on downs like third-and-long when pass-rushers should be able to pin their ears back and go.
“You give somebody long enough, somebody is going to come open,” Hudspeth said. “You can’t cover them forever. The quicker you get to the quarterback, the less time he’s got to see the field, step into his throw. If you can just get there so he can’t step into his throw, that helps.”
While the Cajuns can put a quota on how many attempts their defenders made at causing turnovers this week, there’s no tried and true method to get players off the field on third down.
“You tighten up what you do,” Hudspeth said. “Then each week, through game planning you tweak some things to fit what the other team is doing, but you’ve got to tighten up what you do, fix what you do and get better at what you do.”
The Cajuns will have their hands full this week with Ole Miss, which comes into the contest converting more than half of its third-down attempts, including an impressive 10-of-15 performance last week against Vanderbilt. But the Rebels have shown a careless side as well, posting five turnovers.
“Sometimes you go in spurts where you get a lot (of turnovers); sometimes you get a spurt where you don’t get many,” Hudspeth said. “We definitely need to do a better job of working harder to get them out. Your odds (of winning) increase greatly when you do.”