The extra week of preparation brought on by the Louisiana-Lafayette football team’s open date gave coach Mark Hudspeth some extra time to think about what had gone wrong in the previous three weeks, when the Ragin’ Cajuns were blown out by a combined score of 138-44.
Perhaps more importantly, Hudspeth had time to think about what has gone right in his time in Lafayette and how he can apply that to this year’s team. He thought back to what made his first three Cajuns teams successful — not necessarily from an X’s and O’s perspective but from a philosophical viewpoint.
“We have been a very passionate team the past three years,” Hudspeth said. “We played awfully hard.”
This year? Not so much.
Not yet, at least.
Hudspeth and one of his players brought up the notion Monday that perhaps the Cajuns believed too much in the good press that was coming their way, letting hubris take the place of the underdog mentality they used to embrace.
“I don’t know if maybe some of that had to do with it,” Hudspeth said. “They thought that maybe we have arrived, for some odd reason, and they didn’t have to play with that effort and passion. That effort and passion that we played with was the reason we were 9-4 three straight seasons, not necessarily because we had the best team.”
Wide receiver Al Riles called the past three games “a reality check” for a team that was distracted by the attention it received in the offseason.
“I think it messed with some of the players’ focus,” he said.
Both Hudspeth and Riles sensed that the team was starting to rediscover a zeal for the game that they feel separated their squad from others in the past couple of years. Hudspeth said there was a noticeable difference in his team’s practice intensity last week, which he hopes carries over into this week and Saturday’s game against Georgia State at Cajun Field (6 p.m., ESPN3.com).
“This past week in practice, if I could say anything that I felt like was back, it was that passion,” Hudspeth said.
But can simply playing harder have tangible results? Hudspeth and his players seem to think so, especially in one key area where the Cajuns have sorely lacked this year.
The Cajuns rank last among 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams with just one forced turnover. There have been opportunities to create more, but the bounces haven’t gone the Cajuns’ way.
The best way, in the Cajuns’ eyes, to make more of those bounces go your way is to play harder. Outside linebacker Tyren Alexander said turnovers have been a consistent focus in practice, but when asked how to translate that into a game, Alexander responded by saying, “Playing with passion.”
It’s something Alexander said the team had “faded away from” and that’s potentially caused some plays to go unmade. Hudspeth echoed his sentiment.
“Playing harder covers up mistakes,” Hudspeth said. “Playing harder creates things.”
Hudspeth isn’t laying the blame on the players’ shoulders, though. He said every team, regardless of how many players it brings back from the previous year, has a different dynamic.
He acknowledged that he hadn’t quite found the best way to get his team to play with the fire it displayed in his first three years in charge, but he also sounded confident that he might’ve found something recently.
“This year’s team chemistry is a little bit different,” Hudspeth said. “A little different to figure out learning to push the buttons, but hopefully I’ve gotten those buttons figured out. I didn’t push the right ones the last three weeks.”