While the overall defensive performance against Boise State last week still left much to be desired, the Ragin’ Cajuns were at least able to take one positive note away to build on.
They were finally making plays behind the opponents’ line of scrimmage.
Early in the game, as Boise State was moving the ball at will against his defense,
Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth called up defensive coordinator James Willis and told him to dial up the pressure.
“ ‘Hey, let’s come get them,’?” Hudspeth recalled saying to Willis. “ ‘Because we’re not stopping them by not coming to get them. Let’s change it up and see if putting more pressure on them will help.’
“At times it did. We’ve got to continue to do that, because we certainly can’t play much worse.”
Through the first three games, the Cajuns had only 13 tackles for loss. They nearly doubled that total against Boise State, where Cajuns defenders made nine stops behind the Broncos’ line.
The Cajuns also doubled their season sack total, dropping Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick three times for a total loss of 26 yards.
The quarterback pressures are a particular point of emphasis for a defense that, until this point, has not proved capable of stopping the pass when it needs to.
“It’s something we’re going to keep working for and keep pushing on,” said linebacker Dominique Tovell, who was responsible for one of the sacks. “We know teams are going to try to throw the ball on us a lot, so we just want to keep the effort high and get some pressure on the quarterback and make him throw it earlier.”
Playing a disruptive brand of football near the line can help all facets of the defense simply by making a quarterback make decisions quicker.
“I’m sure it makes the linebackers and secondary’s job a lot easier,” said defensive lineman Christian Ringo, who had a team-leading three tackles for loss against the Broncos. “If you can get pressure on the quarterback, you never know how the quarterback reacts to that pressure.”
At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But if everything is played the way it should be, the Cajuns should also make life difficult on opposing passers even without bringing pressure.
The Cajuns have sent just three rushers after the quarterback numerous times this season, dropping the remaining eight into coverage.
While that should leave the quarterback with a difficult throw into coverage, the Cajuns have had ugly results when rushing three, a problem Hudspeth said has come from linebackers not being where they’re supposed to be.
“You may not get to the quarterback, but there shouldn’t be anywhere to throw the ball when you rush three,” Hudspeth said. “That’s the thing I’ve been disappointed about. They’re completing midrange passes against basically drop eight.
Hudspeth liked what he saw late in the Boise State game from junior wide receiver Al Riles, who had a pair of second-half catches that went for 24 yards.
“Al showed a little burst the other night for the first time,” Hudspeth said. “I thought he sort of got hot, and we started utilizing him a little bit. What we started doing in the second half, if we started doing that earlier, we would’ve been more successful.”
Hudspeth said the Cajuns must have the confidence to throw it to Riles on the perimeter and let him make plays like he did against Boise State.
Riles only had four catches entering the game, but he might be finding his groove as a receiver. He spent his first two years on campus playing mostly defense.
“Maybe he’s getting more comfortable playing the position in a game,” Hudspeth said. “Going through spring ball in thud situations is a little different than playing against live bullets. He’s probably getting his confidence a little bit right now.”
The one that didn’t get away
Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said his unit was atrocious on third down last week, and the numbers say he might be understating it.
The Cajuns went 2-for-15 on third down against Boise State, converting just one third-down play in each half.
But Johnson prefers to see the glass half full. When looking at the game film, it was one of the two conversions that stood out.
The Cajuns were still looking for their first third-down conversion of the day early in the second quarter when quarterback Terrance Broadway found Elijah McGuire for a 10-yard gain on third and seven. Broadway got the ball to McGuire in space, and the shifty running back did the rest.
“We need to continue to emphasize that,” Johnson said.