Louisiana’s two Sun Belt Conference football members meet Saturday in the league opener for both, and they’re meeting under very different circumstances than one season ago.
In fact, when UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe face off at 4 p.m. at Cajun Field, it will be different circumstances than in any season in recent memory.
The Ragin’ Cajuns and the Warhawks have been a late-season staple in the Sun Belt since the league began playing football in 2001. The schools have faced off in the season’s final month every year since 2009, except for a calendar anomaly when they played on Halloween night two seasons ago.
In fact, last year’s contest was a Dec. 3 regular-season finale, and like most of their meetings since Mark Hudspeth took over the UL-Lafayette program, the Cajuns had something riding on the outcome and the Warhawks were playing for pride.
ULM was out of the league and bowl-berth races last December, while UL-Lafayette was 5-6 and needed a victory to claim a spot in the New Orleans Bowl. Heavy rains limited the crowd to a few hundred that watched the Cajuns roll to a 30-3 win.
This year is different. Starting Saturday, when the teams play in September for the first time since 1992, both teams are 0-0 in the Sun Belt race.
“It absolutely does have a different feel this year,” Hudspeth said. “We talked about that to the team this week. The last few years we’ve played later in the season. Now, going in here, first conference game, I can guarantee that changes the dynamic of this game. It’ll bring a lot more than if it was late in the season.”
It’s not like either team has opened 2017 red-hot. The Cajuns (1-2) are coming off back-to-back road losses at Tulsa and Texas A&M in which they allowed 111 points, those coming after a close 51-48 opening win against FCS member Southeastern Louisiana.
“It’s not like they’ve played a bunch of bad teams,” ULM coach Matt Viator said. “Those guys are all good. They have the personnel, but for whatever reason, haven’t put it together yet.”
The Warhawks (0-2) also haven’t put together a win, but ULM has been close in each of its losses — a 37-29 opener at a Memphis team that beat a ranked UCLA team last week, and last Saturday’s 28-17 home-opener loss to Southern Miss. ULM’s second game of the year at Florida State was canceled because of Hurricane Irma.
“As a football team we’re a lot better,” Viator said. “But that isn’t enough. It comes down to how good you play.”
Even with those results, Hudspeth was still asked this week if he expected his team to have a letdown after leading Texas A&M at halftime last Saturday before monumental struggles in the second half.
“If we were 3-0 and had beaten those guys last week, I’d be worried about maybe a little letdown,” he said. “But we’re not in position where we’re worried about that. We need to have a letup, if that’s a term for anything.
“We have to get back in the win column, and knowing the rivalry with ULM, the series, the importance of this game, an in-state game, and the first conference game, everything makes it an important game. Our kids were mad after last week, they weren’t pouting, they were mad because we sort of had a big fish on the hook and we didn’t get it in the boat.”
The Cajuns have won eight of the past nine in the series, losing only in 2013, when quarterback Terrance Broadway was out with an injury and UL-Lafayette already had eight wins and a bowl berth locked up. Since that season, ULM’s win-loss records entering its game with the Cajuns were 3-6, 1-6 and 4-7.
“At that point, they were not in the race for the conference,” Hudspeth said. “This time, neither team is playing for pride.”
The Warhawks enter Saturday with a quarterback question. Junior Garrett Smith started against USM but more-mobile sophomore Caleb Evans played most of the game and finished with 102 yards rushing and two TDs. Smith missed last year’s game with an injury and Evans struggled in the rain, completing 3 of 14 passes for 31 yards with two interceptions and fumbling twice — both of them returned for touchdowns by the UL-Lafayette defense.
The Cajuns have a different issue at quarterback. Jordan Davis has thrown for 668 yards and five scores and is fourth in the Sun Belt in passing and total offense. But the junior was hobbled much of the A&M game with a knee injury after a sideline hit. He suffered two interceptions and fumbled twice after that.
“Hopefully he can get back healthy this week,” Hudspeth said of Davis, who returned to practice Tuesday and worked all week with the first offense. “You could tell that it took something out of him when he got hurt.”
The Cajuns led 21-14 at halftime before getting blanked offensively and crumbling defensively after halftime, with the Aggies getting 17 first downs in the third quarter alone. UL-Lafayette enters Saturday ranked last nationally in rushing defense and scoring defense, and is also coming off a five-turnover game against the Aggies.
“It’s hard to go on the road and beat anybody, much less an SEC team, turning the ball over five times,” Hudspeth said. “You could just see the momentum swing. Our guys know we’re better than that, but they are in the same boat. They want to get their season going, too. It’s a whole new season.”