UL coach Billy Napier often reminds the media and fans every program in America has problems to overcome.
Topping that list for his No. 25-ranked Ragin’ Cajuns in 2020 is getting off to slow starts.
Just a brief glance at the season’s score by quarters clearly illustrates it, especially on the offensive end.
The Cajuns have scored only 21 points in the first quarter all season, compared to 60 in the second, 55 in the third and 65 in the final period.
On the defensive side, the numbers aren’t quite as drastically different, giving up 34 points in the first quarter, 54 in the second, 30 in the third and 46 in the fourth.
With the Cajuns being nationally ranked for the first time in World War II and off to a 6-1, 4-1 start, the question is, does it even matter?
Are we making too big of a deal about it no matter how frustrating it is at times?
If you ask every UL fan, player and coach which one they’d prefer, every one would agree it’s better to be a second-half team.
It’s why nearly every team at all levels in America walks around with four fingers in the air once the third quarter ends.
Certainly there are a special few teams that regularly score a ton of points in the first half and just rattle off blowout win after blowout win.
Obviously, the 2020 Cajuns aren’t one of those teams. Getting over it for the fans is appreciating the effective halftime adjustments UL’s coaching staff seemingly makes each week.
For the team, getting over it is in the constant pursuit of trying to be strong in all four quarters.
The truth is most of the issue comes on offense.
For example, only twice in seven games has UL’s offense scored on its opening drive. Ironically, one of those two times was against Coastal Carolina in the Cajuns’ only loss of the season. (The other was against UL’s lowest-rated foe in Texas State).
So again, is it possible it’s not really the big problem some perceive it as?
In those seven opening drives, UL’s offense collected zero first downs three times, four twice, three one and one once. So that’s 14 points and 12 first downs on first drives.
By contrast, UL’s defense has allowed only 14 points – again one of those TDs in the loss to Coastal Carolina – and 17 total first downs on opening drives.
On Napier’s report card, the cause for his offense’s lack of early success is a 50-50 mix between Cajun mistakes and the opposition’s good preparation.
This past Saturday, it was a poor decision that led to an offensive pass interference flag that ended UL’s first possession prematurely.
“Often items, it will be a combination,” Napier detailed. “Sometimes we’re getting exactly what we’ve practiced and we’re not executing the plan, or maybe we’re not picking from the right stuff. It’s a combination of coaching, it’s a combination of player execution and decision-making and it’s a combination of you’ve got to give the other team some credit sometimes.
“I know we all want to go to the park and score 50, like I do every week, but it’s just not happening.”
Could it be that UL is too run-oriented early on and needs to pass more early to set up the running game?
Perhaps, but the first-drive numbers don’t back that up. In the 41 plays on opening drives so far this season, the Cajuns have run it 22 times and passed it 19. In fact, on the opening touchdown against Coastal Carolina, UL utilized seven runs and three passes.
Chances are, if there was an easy fix to be found, the staff would have already found it.
As the cliché says, every team is different, and history shows some teams just have peculiar characteristics that are hard to explain.
Napier is just glad this year’s club isn’t made up of a bunch of front-runners.
“Our team has impressed me with the fact that we don’t panic,” Napier said after Saturday’s win. “There’s a ton of poise among our players and our staff. The staff has done a really good job of teaching football.
“In general, we’ve got a special group in there. They don’t have any quit in them at all.”
Quarterback Levi Lewis said it’s a matter of the players making the coach’s play-calling job easier by “just playing ball.”
Lewis also revealed that most opponents have thrown different schemes at UL's offense than they showed on film this season and actually the coaches have done well in adjusting throughout the season.
With that said, Lewis suggested it's time to stop talking about starting fast and just do it.
Running back Chris Smith basically agreed.
“As a team, we’re just not executing,” he said. “We just have to stick together and do our job. That’s what we haven’t been doing in the first half.”
Something tells me all the unusual early starts during his COVID 2020 season has something to do with it. But neither Napier nor his players have entertained that when asked, so we’ll eliminate that notion as an option.
For the record, Saturday’s 1 p.m. opponent South Alabama has scored its fewest points (29) in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars’ record is 3-4 overall and 2-2 in league play.
With that said, naturally Napier would love as the offensive play-caller to give his defense an early cushion more often.
“Life’s not perfect,” Napier said of UL’s 6-0 halftime deficit against Arkansas State. “I think they stuck together. We did a good job of working our way through each possession - what happened, why it happened and fixing it … discussing what we needed to call and try to position them for success.”
Because if the Cajuns score more points than South Alabama does Saturday, UL will be in the Sun Belt Conference championship game for the third straight season.
Regardless of how many of those points come in the first quarter.