LAFAYETTE - The perception of disrespect was evidently a powerful preseason motivator for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette offensive line.
And if ULL’s blockers forgot they were considered the weak link on offense, line coach Mitch Rodrigue was usually there to remind them otherwise.
Instead of a liability, the linemen have helped the Cajuns become the scoring leader in the Sun Belt Conference, something the team might need Saturday when ULL meets Western Kentucky at 3 p.m. in L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky.
League-leading ULL (6-1, 4-0 SBC) is riding a six-game winning streak and the best start in conference history. After starting 0-4, the Hilltoppers have won two straight in the SBC, with victories over Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic.
Senior guard Kyle Plouhar said ULL’s line contributed to the problems last season when the Cajuns underachieved and were beset by injuries.
Plouhar said the linemen understood they had perhaps earned the reputation they are now trying so hard to shed.
“Calling us the weak link (as the season began) was not unfair, because last year we didn’t do that well,” Plouhar said.
Plouhar said the linemen were tired of hearing they were the problem and decided to do something about it in the
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offseason when Rodrigue was placed in charge of the offensive line under first-year coach Mark Hudspeth.
“We got a whole new look, with a new system and blocking schemes,” Plouhar said. “What we’re doing now with our blocking has given us a chance to be more successful and helped us form more of a tight-knit group.”
ULL is also the conference leader in passing efficiency (210 yards per game) and red-zone offense (scoring 94.7 percent of the time). The Cajuns have allowed just two sacks per game.
In the past four games, only one penalty has been accepted against the offensive line.
Rodrigue said he was also there with frequent reminders that the line was a target of derision.
“I used that all summer as motivation for us to get better, in that people didn’t really expect much from the positions, and that they needed to get a lot better,” Rodrigue said. “No one wants to be the weak part of the team, and I think the linemen took it personal this summer.”
Rodrigue also began reassembling the members of last year’s line, which returned four starters.
Leonardo Bates was switched from guard to left tackle, Andre Huval was moved from guard to center, redshirt freshman Daniel Quave was inserted as the starter at right guard, Jerome Odom was placed at right tackle and Plouhar remained at left tackle.
“Sometimes, it becomes a jigsaw puzzle that falls in place when you start putting the right pieces in the right places,” Rodrigue said.
The new combinations have worked, and unlike last year, the unit has started the same five interior blockers since the Sept. 3 opening game at Oklahoma State.
Rodrigue said he’s hopeful that won’t change, because the depth behind the starters includes four players who are sophomores or freshmen who have never started in college.
Rainey a challenge
The Cajuns defense is facing WKU running back Bobby Rainey, the conference rushing leader (171 carries, 704 yards), who has gained more than 100 yards in five games this season. Rainey has 3,551 career rushing yards.
WKU’s Lance Guidry is in his first season as the Hilltoppers defensive coordinator. Guidry has also coached the McNeese State defense and was Carencro High’s head coach for several years.
ULL linebacker Lance Kelley is having a productive senior season since being switched from strong safety. Kelly is second in the league in pass deflections (eight) in addition to intercepting two passes and ranking sixth in total tackles (35) in conference games.
Kelley leads the Cajuns with 59 tackles.
The Cajuns also have a league-leading nine interceptions, with five of those returned for touchdowns. While ULL’s interceptions have been returned for 317 yards, their opponents have intercepted three for 35 yards.
Surgent also a leader
Sophomore Darryl Surgent is the league leader in punt and kickoff returns. Surgent is averaging 10.9 yards per punt return and 25.3 on kickoffs.