No one should blame UL-Lafayette’s defensive veterans if they’re approaching Saturday’s pivotal Sun Belt Conference West Division showdown at UL-Monroe with a measure of trepidation.
After all, Caleb Evans likely has been in some of their nightmares.
The Warhawks junior quarterback had his personal dream game against the Ragin’ Cajuns last year, running for a school-record-tying five touchdowns and throwing for 343 yards and another score. Evans personally accounted for 472 yards and 36 points as the Warhawks took a stunning 56-50 double-overtime victory that opened Sun Belt play on a sour note for the host Cajuns.
“He kind of lit us up last year,” said Cajuns junior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux. By the time that season ended, Evans, who's from Mansfield, Texas, had thrown for 2,868 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for another 579 yards and 13 scores.
Evans is back and has been just as prolific this season in guiding ULM into contention in the Sun Belt West Division, and he’s this week’s unquestioned focus for the Cajuns defense. In fact, UL-Lafayette coach Billy Napier said that slowing Evans might be the key to his team claiming the West title and a berth in next week’s inaugural Sun Belt championship game.
“I think he’s outstanding,” Napier said. “He runs their system at a really efficient rate. He’s a good athlete and he’s a threat to run the ball, but more importantly he’s a threat to extend passing plays. You have to both contain him in the pocket, and you’ve got to do a good job of coverage when he does extend the play.”
Napier wasn’t around last year when Evans scored on runs of 7, 38, 7, 5 and 6 yards among a career-high 16 carries for 129 yards. He also completed 28 of 34 passes for 343 yards and connected with R. J. Turner for a 15-yard score in the first overtime.
“He can throw it and he can run it,” said Boudreaux, the Cajuns' leader in tackles with 72. “You want to make him one-dimensional, limit him and apply pressure and make him think a little bit. That game last year shows that as a defense we weren’t in the right mindset, but this year we have a new identity … this is a new us, and he’s not going to do that same thing against us.”
It’s not just UL-Lafayette that Evans has bedeviled. In fact, his passing total in last year’s game wasn’t even in his top four during a season in which he threw for more than 400 yards in three Sun Belt games.
He’ll make his 22nd consecutive start in Saturday’s 2 p.m. battle at Malone Stadium and enters with 6,370 career yards and 35 touchdowns passing.
This year, he’s also ULM’s leading rusher with 608 yards and 10 scores.
“What more can you say about him?” said ULM coach Matt Viator, whose team can still win the Sun Belt West title with a win and an Arkansas State loss Saturday. “The numbers kind of speak for themselves. What’s remarkable is that teams know what he’s capable of and know that he’s the guy that gets us going offensively, and he’s still able to do all the things he does for our football team.”
Last year’s game evolved into a shootout, which wasn’t surprising since UL-Lafayette gave up more yardage and points than all but one Sun Belt team. That team was the Warhawks, who were last in the league in defense (532 yards allowed per game) and points allowed (41.0 per game).
Saturday’s game could be different. The Cajuns are marginally better numbers-wise, giving up 452 yards and 34 points per game. But UL-Lafayette has struggled against mobile quarterbacks. Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald ran for four touchdowns among 107 rush yards and also threw for 243 yards and two more scores in a 56-10 Bulldogs win, Texas State’s Tyler Vitt threw for 296 and ran for 92 despite the Cajuns winning 42-27 in San Marcos, and just last weekend South Alabama’s Cole Garvin threw for 254 yards and two scores and added 50 yards rushing.
USA entered that game with the Sun Belt’s least productive offense but churned out a season-high 477 yards in the Cajuns’ 48-38 win.
“We didn’t do a great job on the perimeter, and that’s something we know we’ve got to fix,” Napier said, “especially this week because of the challenges that (Evans) and their offense present for you.”