In a way, Louisiana-Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth can thank Appalachian State for going on its four-game winning streak.
That surge definitely has helped the Ragin’ Cajuns focus on the Mountaineers for Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest at Cajun Field — and not on the hoopla surrounding the Senior Day home finale and the prospects of a fourth straight bowl invitation in the near future.
UL-Lafayette will retire the jersey of current Chicago Bears standout Charles “Peanut” Tillman at halftime, and the school will have a pregame tribute to fellow Cajuns star and former NFL standout Orlando Thomas, who died two weeks ago following a decade-long battle with ALS.
It adds up to an emotional day on many fronts, but focus has not been a problem for the Cajuns over their unbeaten month and a half.
“Right now, we’re way more confident and we’ve got a lot of momentum,” Hudspeth said in reference to UL-Lafayette’s 1-3 start. “The guys are having a lot of fun right now. Early in the season, that may have forged this team together, back when people counted us out.”
Since that start, the Cajuns (7-3, 6-0) have run the table against Sun Belt Conference foes, winning four of the six games by double-digit margins, and are two wins from their first unbeaten Sun Belt season. UL-Lafayette visits Troy next Saturday in the regular-season finale.
“We better keep that focus,” Hudspeth said. “For us to take that next step, we have to keep that production going. We’re going to sell the farm again to get ourselves ready to play because we’re catching a team that’s red hot.”
Appalachian State (5-5, 4-2) struggled early in its inaugural Sun Belt season, but the Mountaineers have averaged 42.6 points in their past five games. The current four-game winning streak was highlighted by a 37-32 upset of three-time defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State last Saturday, giving the Red Wolves only their fifth league loss in three seasons.
“They don’t look like a first-year team,” Hudspeth said. “A great program with a great tradition, and they’ve got two of the best players in the league in (QB Taylor) Lamb and (RB Marcus) Cox. Their stats will scare you to death.”
Lamb leads the Sun Belt in pass efficiency and has thrown for 1,963 yards and 13 scores. Cox has two 200-yard rush games in his past three outings and is second among Sun Belt rushers with 1,142 yards and 15 scores. As a team, Appalachian State is second in the league in total offense, rush offense and scoring offense — and leads the Sun Belt in total defense.
In a 33-minute stretch last week, the Mountaineers outgained Arkansas State 400-43 during a run of 31 unanswered points.
The Cajuns may welcome a team that runs the football after last Saturday’s 34-27 win at UL-Monroe. In that game, the Warhawks had only seven called rushes, none of them in the final 22 minutes, and ended up throwing 56 times for 483 yards.
“When they realized they couldn’t run the ball, they went to those quick passes,” said defensive end Boris Anyama, part of a unit that posted seven sacks and three turnovers and held ULM to a school record minus-39 rushing yards. “We had some breakdowns where we’d miss some tackles and they’d break one, but most of the time we were forcing them to do that.”
Appalachian State figures to be much more traditional. Led by Cox, who had 229 yards on 40 carries and scored twice against A-State, the Mountaineers are averaging 246.2 rushing yards. That’s the most of any non-option-attack team in the Sun Belt; Georgia Southern is at 384.2 rush yards.
That attack matches up with a Cajuns defense that is the league’s best against the rush (140.6 yards per game). Senior tackle Christian Ringo had eight tackles against ULM and leads the Sun Belt with 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for losses.
“Our team’s good at stopping the run,” Anyama said.
The Cajuns have been good at running themselves, especially with a healthy Alonzo Harris in the lineup. Harris, one of 22 seniors who will play their final home game Saturday, missed the previous six quarters with a thigh bruise but went for 133 yards on only 13 carries in the ULM win. He became the third player in UL-Lafayette history to crack the 3,000-yard career rushing mark, topping that figure on a 54-yard run on his first touch against the Warhawks.
“It’s a humbling experience to be part of that kind of success,” said senior guard Daniel Quave, who will make a school-record 50th consecutive start Saturday. “We’ve got a special relationship, and to help him get where he’s gotten as been pretty special.”
Harris and sophomore Elijah McGuire have teamed for more than 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns this year. And with senior quarterback Terrance Broadway, they have combined for 2,117 rush yards.
Anyama, Ringo, Harris, Quave and Broadway will join the rest of the senior class for pregame honors. The group is the most successful senior class (34 wins so far) in school history and includes many of the members of Hudspeth’s first signing class in Lafayette.
“It’s going to be an emotional night for me, too,” he said. “These seniors we brought in trusted us when we didn’t have anything to offer, and now they’re going to walk out of a successful program.”