ACA.ulfootball2.111520

UL wide receiver Jalen Williams, left, lands in the end zone for a touchdown during the Cajuns' 38-10 win over South Alabama on Saturday at Cajun Field.

Clinching a spot in the conference championship game is one thing.

Doing it with three games left in the regular season puts the No. 24-ranked UL Ragin’ Cajuns in a pretty unique situation.

Suddenly, coach Billy Napier and his staff have three weeks or at least the next two against Central Arkansas and ULM  to work on the infamous “little things” to get prepared for the Sun Belt title game on Dec. 19.

“That’s going to be our focus going forward is to continue to improve,” Napier said.

Indeed, starting fast and finally having a leisurely fourth quarter in the 38-10 win over South Alabama seems to open so many doors for the Cajuns (7-1, 5-1).

“Most definitely in all three phases,” cornerback Mekhi Garner said. “We almost put it together, but we still have a lot of things to fix and a lot of things to work on. We’re definitely getting it from this game forward.”

In Napier’s mind, it was almost like hitting the reset button.

“The whole key is that we take it one week at a time,” he said. “We’ll have a very specific set of objectives for each player in each position group. It’s about mastering the routine. We get a chance to start over.”

If so, he’ll be doing so with a lot more information than he did a month ago.

Saturday’s win was huge on many fronts.

For the coaches, it was extra fulfilling because the staff challenged the players and the team delivered.

“I thought the staff did a great job with the players,” Napier said. “We were in the right frame of mind to play today. I thought that was the big challenge, having the right mindset. Two years in a row against this team and this staff, we felt like we got knocked around a little bit.

“We needed to have a better disposition going into the game. We did that. We played well on both sides of the line of scrimmage and played well on the edges.”

And of course, the staff got its cake and was able to eat it as well.

“There’s no question I thought that was our best performance of the year as a football team,” Napier said. “We still had a handful too many penalties and we need to learn how to finish the game better on offense.

“We should not have that significant of a drop-off when we put our twos in the game. We’ve got a lot higher standards and expectations for those players.”

You know it’s a good week when the biggest criticism is how the second team performs in mop-up duty.

Peeling back a few more layers to Saturday’s win reveal a few other encouraging factors to UL’s future hopes.

Kenny Almendares wasn’t given many overly tough assignments in the win, but he delivered on his only field goal and made all five extra points.

Don't undervalue that effort, though. Remember, it’s been the routine field goals that have given UL trouble most of the season.

On offense, suddenly a wide receiving corps somewhat void of options early on is loaded with them. Seven different receivers caught passes and tight end Neal Johnson continues to be a productive target for quarterback Levi Lewis.

Another area worth ignoring is the big day redshirt sophomore cornerback Mekhi Garner enjoyed.

When Garner replaced AJ Washington with a big interception at Georgia State, Napier couldn't hide his big smile when asked about his now-unhidden cornerback.

In Saturday's win, Garner contributed five tackles, a sack and four pass breakups.

"I think the production he’s seeing on the field, the improvement he’s making on the field is a product of his growth as a person," Napier said. "His maturity, his discipline. Mekhi’s is one of the more gifted young men that we have in terms of height, length, speed. He’s an intelligent young man. He’s a competitor.

"I think coach (LaMar) Morgan’s done a really, really good job with Mekhi. Mekhi’s got a bright future in this game if he’ll continue to do the intangible things well. The sky’s the limit for him."

Garner said his improvement over the course of the season is all about him playing with confidence.

After Saturday's breakthrough performance, it won't be only Garner's confidence level soaring the rest of the way.


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.