It’s only the first week of October, and UL-Lafayette’s football team still has two-thirds of its regular-season games to play.
But if the Ragin’ Cajuns want to put themselves in the mix for the Sun Belt Conference championship, or at least in position to achieve bowl eligibility, Saturday’s first league road game carries huge importance.
The Cajuns will be in far-flung Moscow, Idaho, for a pivotal battle with the Idaho Vandals, and a second straight Sun Belt loss would make UL-Lafayette (1-3, 0-1) a longshot for a conference title. A loss would also make reaching the required six wins for bowl contention an iffy proposition, considering the road schedule that faces the Cajuns in the second half of the season.
At the same time, a win would cleanse the memories of a disappointing Sun Belt opener two weeks ago and give the Cajuns some measure of revenge after Idaho (2-2, 1-0) handed UL-Lafayette a stunning mid-season home loss last year.
Either way, Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth knows how damaging the 56-50 home loss to UL-Monroe two weeks ago was to his team and its hopes and is hoping last Saturday’s open date helped before a stretch of four road games in five outings.
“We had a really great week,” Hudspeth said. “The way they responded, the way they’re working and pushing, it’s obvious they know they have a lot of football ahead of them.”
The Cajuns have two huge questions going forward, both for this weekend’s marathon trip to the Northwest and for the remainder of the season: Who will lead that offense at quarterback? And, can a staffing addition help salve the wounds of a struggling defensive unit?
The first answer will come quickly, just after Saturday’s 4 p.m. kickoff in Idaho’s Kibbie Dome, where either Jordan Davis or Andre Nunez will take the field with the offense. Davis has started UL-Lafayette’s first four games, and after a shaky performance in the opening 51-48 win over Southeastern Louisiana, the junior had a stellar performance in a loss to Tulsa and continued that success in the first half at Texas A&M.
That was before he twisted a knee in a sideline hit against the Aggies. Davis finished the game but was ineffective in the second half, then struggled in the first three series against UL-Monroe.
That brought on Nunez, who also had early struggles before catching fire in the second half, throwing for 287 yards and two scores and running for a third touchdown after halftime. Behind the junior transfer, the Cajuns offense scored 21 points in the final 7:03 of regulation to force overtime against the Warhawks.
Hudspeth said that Davis is still the starter … but only if he’s fully healthy, and that decision likely won’t come until pregame warmups on the Kibbie Dome’s new turf.
“If he’s not 100 percent, we saw what happens when he can’t move,” Hudspeth said of Davis, who was 2 for 6 for 8 yards and was sacked for a safety in his three series against ULM. “I’m not saying he wouldn’t play, but he wouldn’t start if he’s not 100 percent. This is not a demotion. I don’t believe you lose your job to an injury. But he’s going to have to be 100 percent coming in.”
Nunez, a West Coast product who joined the Cajuns last spring out of Iowa Western Community College, is more of a pocket passer than Davis. But Hudspeth pointed at one play against ULM – the final play of regulation when Nunez hit Ja’Marcus Bradley for a tying touchdown – as proof of his mobility.
“He can buy time and move out of the pocket,” Hudspeth said. “When he found Ja’Marcus, that showed a lot of poise and awareness.”
Idaho coach Paul Petrino said his defense, which leads the Sun Belt in pass yards allowed, is preparing for both.
“Their offense doesn’t change a whole lot with either of them in there,” said Petrino, the younger brother of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. “They definitely have different strengths. You have to have a plan for both of them. (Nunez) was accurate and did a great job those last drives to tie it up, made some nice accurate throws, made things happen.”
Petrino doesn’t have quarterback issues, because third-year starter Matt Linehan is back under center. The son of Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the senior threw for 227 yards and was hugely efficient in the Vandals’ 23-13 win over the Cajuns last year. He led the Sun Belt in passing (3,184 yards) last year, was the MVP in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, in which Idaho scored 61 points against Colorado State, and is third in the league in passing efficiency this year.
“He’ll be a challenge,” Hudspeth said, “especially playing on his turf. Indoors with no weather, he’ll be able to zip that ball around. He knows where to go with the ball and he’s really accurate. We’ll have to bring our ‘A’ game, which we have not brought yet defensively.”
The Cajuns defense, in fact, ranks last nationally in points allowed (53.8 per game) and is near the bottom in rush defense and total defense. It’s those figures that prompted Hudspeth to bring in former coordinator James Willis as a defensive analyst. Willis, a part of the UL-Lafayette staff for nine-win seasons in 2013 and 2014, was fired along with four other coaches from the New Orleans Saints defensive and special team staffs in January.
“He gives us extra eyes in preparation and extra eyes on the field with his experience,” said Hudspeth, who emphasized that no other defensive staff changes were imminent. “His ideas, collaborating with our defensive staff, I think have already paid some dividends.”