LAFAYETTE — The beast needed to be fed, regardless of what face it was wearing.
Coach Mark Hudspeth watched senior running back Alonzo Harris going through warmups in New Mexico last week knowing full well that he wasn’t going to use him in the game, not unless, he said, a “bomb goes off.”
Harris was not 100 percent, and Hudspeth and the Cajuns coaching staff were doing everything they could to get him there, even if that meant sacrificing what contributions he might’ve had at a diminished level of productivity.
Four quarters off against New Mexico State plus half of the previous game? That’s 90 minutes of pounding Harris didn’t have to endure, which hopefully would lead to a fully healthy Harris for the stretch run, because the Cajuns will need the Diesel yet, there’s no doubt about that.
The only doubt was whether Elijah McGuire would be able to handle being the bell cow.
It’s not very often that McGuire is the one being doubted. He is, by most estimations, the best player on the team. But could he do this? Could he handle both his and Harris’ load?
“That was a concern going in,” Hudspeth said. “We really felt like we were going to hold ‘Zo at all costs,” Hudspeth said. “Could (McGuire) hold up for that type of pounding?”
See, the Cajuns knew that they weren’t just going to not run, just because the guy that has carried the ball nearly 650 times over the last three years and change wasn’t in the lineup.
No, the beast needed to be fed.
“Eli, we’ve called on him to do so much,” said senior center Terry Johnson. “So hey, why not a little bit more?”
In steps Elijah McGuire, the home-run hitter stepping out of the cleanup role and into the leadoff spot, where he’d have to take a few pitches to set up the rest of the offense.
McGuire didn’t break off his customary big play last week, but he did carry the offense up and down the field in a feature back role.
McGuire had never totaled 20 carries in a game before last week.
The Cajuns turned around and handed the ball to him 25 times by the end of the third quarter. He finished with 26 carries for 136 yards.
“I would’ve probably liked to get him five or six less carries, but he was hot and I think he had a little momentum,” Hudspeth said. “We just stayed with him and he did a nice job.”
He also did it in a way he hasn’t done before.
“He actually ran inside the tackles on maybe 19 of those 26 carries,” said quarterback Terrance Broadway.
That’s significant, because it’s such a departure from how McGuire is typically used. His speed and agility make him a great threat to break a big one around the edges. The middle of the field is usually reserved for Harris, the Cajuns 240-pound battering ram.
To hell with that, McGuire thought. He’s heard the people referring to him as the lightning to Harris’ thunder, which is partially true, but it also bears the stigma that he’s a one-trick pony.
“I could tell that he wants to be considered as an every down back also,” Broadway said. “He proved he could do that last week.”
But what about this week? Which face will the hungry beast wear against ULM?
Well, everybody’s. This beast, it’s complementary when it’s healthy.
“When you’ve got a guy like Alonzo coming downhill, especially when he’s able to get to the second and third level when safeties and linebackers are having to tackle a 245-pounder, it takes a toll on you,” said tight end coach Reid Stringer. “When it really shows up is when it gets late in the game in the second half and fourth quarter, and all of a sudden you’ve got Elijah out there who has only touched the ball 15-to-17 times and he’s still fresh.
“He goes in there and completely changes the speed of the game after Alonzo has been hammering them.”
The Cajuns ground game should finally be operating at max capacity this weekend, with both Harris and McGuire fully healthy for the first time in a long time.
“I think we’ll have our 1-2 punch as good as we’ve had it this year,” Hudspeth said.
Unleash the beast, then.