LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette’s football squad will face the Sun Belt Conference’s most prolific passer this weekend, and that could spell trouble for what has been an up-and-down secondary.
At least the Ragin’ Cajuns won’t have a hostile crowd in their ear when they square off against Georgia State and the big arm of quarterback Nick Arbuckle in Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Arbuckle ranks eighth nationally, throwing for 335.9 yards per game and 13 touchdowns, and had 287 yards on 20 completions in last year’s Cajun Field meeting, when UL-Lafayette had to score late to win 34-31. He threw for 390 yards and two scores in a 48-34 loss at Arkansas State last Saturday.
The senior will go against a Cajuns defense that has been shaky in first halves and nearly lights-out in second halves much of the season. Last Saturday’s 30-24 homecoming win over state rival Louisiana-Monroe was a classic example, with the Warhawks scoring 24 points on their first five possessions and none on their last eight.
“Having the confidence that you can pull a game out when you’re behind at the half or late in the fourth quarter tells you a lot about this team,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We finally pulled one out like that, so give our guys credit for continuing to believe. Now we want to get better at the start.”
The Panthers (2-5, 1-2) would just like to get better at home. Despite playing one Football Championship Subdivision team (Liberty) and one start-up FBS squad (Charlotte), Georgia State is 0-3 in the Georgia Dome this year and has a grand total of one home win since 2012.
The Panthers, including Arbuckle, have been much more effective on the road this year: GSU averages 31.8 points in four away games and 18.7 in the three home appearances. Arbuckle is completing 57.6 percent of his throws and averaging 279.0 yards in the Dome; he’s hitting 65.4 percent and averaging 378.5 in four road contests.
“There tends to be more energy when we are on the road,” Arbuckle said. “We are going to work on bringing that into the dome.”
The lack of energy likely comes from a lack of fans. GSU has drawn generously announced crowds of 10,252, 11,512 and 10,101 for its three home games. Six of the past nine home crowds have been under 12,000, making the cavernous 70,000-seat downtown Atlanta facility less than boisterous. In fact, the Panthers were drawing better two seasons ago, with the 14,415 that saw UL-Lafayette’s 35-21 win ranking as the second-smallest home crowd in 2013.
Coach Trent Miles’ team went winless that year and was 1-11 without a Sun Belt victory last season, but this year it has claimed a league win at New Mexico State and had a solid road win at Ball State two weeks ago.
The Cajuns (3-4, 2-1) haven’t won on the road this season after going 5-2 away from Cajun Field last year. But Hudspeth is more concerned about Arbuckle’s ability than the road venue or the fans, especially after GSU tallied 425 yards against his defense last season.
“They give him good protection, and he gets it off quick,” he said. “They’re going to spread the field and create lanes, they’re really good about moving the ball around to a lot of people and they’re not afraid to push it down the field. We’ve had a lot of trouble with them the last two years. Trent’s got that program right where they want it; they’re turning it around.”
The Cajuns (3-4, 2-1) would like to continue a turnaround that Hudspeth hopes began at halftime against ULM. The wins over Georgia State in the past two seasons have been part of six-game midseason conference winning streaks, with last year’s win igniting that run.
In that 2014 game, backup quarterback Brooks Haack replaced the injured Terrance Broadway in the fourth quarter and engineered a late drive that a returned Broadway capped with a 21-yard pass to Jamal Robinson with 3:34 left.
UL-Lafayette may look to use the aerial game more than in last Saturday’s rain-marred win, when the Cajuns totaled 109 passing yards. The Panthers rank last in the Sun Belt in pass defense, and opposing quarterbacks are completing 66 percent of their throws.
Of course, the continuing question is which quarterback the Panthers will face. Haack started the season, was replaced by Jalen Nixon after three games, and then took over at halftime against ULM and led the Cajuns to three second-half touchdowns.
Hudspeth said he won’t announce a starter until kickoff — just like earlier this season — but this time he said a dual-quarterback system is more likely than at any time this year.
“We’ve got a quarterback that’s capable of rushing for 200 yards (Nixon had 201 against Arkansas State), and we’ve got another quarterback that’s capable of throwing effectively,” Hudspeth said. “Moving forward, we’re going to play both of them.”
Nixon has thrown for more yardage (810) but has nearly twice as many attempts, while Haack has completed a higher percentage (57.0). Nixon is the team’s second-leading rusher with 368 yards, but it was Haack who had a key 15-yard scramble to set up UL-Lafayette’s first touchdown last week and added a 13-yard scoring run with 7:21 left that pulled the Cajuns within 24-22.
Haack’s most memorable play was the 64-yard midfield bomb to Robinson with 3:10 left that provided the winning touchdown.
“When Brooks lost his starting position, he kept practicing like a starter and kept being a team captain,” Hudspeth said. “When it came his way, he was prepared. Both of these guys have skills, and both have helped their team. We may end up going with the hot hand.”