ACA.ulfootball18.111520

UL's Trey Ragas (9), shown here celebrating an touchdown earlier this season with teammates Kyren Lacy (2) and Hunter Bergeron (89), hope to get that level of excitement up again Saturday at the First Responder Bowl a week after the disappointment of the the Sun Belt Conference championship game getting canceled.

As much as any coach around, UL coach Billy Napier discusses the intangibles when analyzing his football team on a regular basis.

As his Ragin’ Cajuns prepare for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. showdown with UTSA in the First Responder Bowl at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas, the chip on his team’s shoulder figures to be bigger than it’s ever been.

And unfortunately, the emotional baggage is also heavier than ever.

In a season overloaded with unique challenges, those intangibles will be tested this week like never before.

The bitterness of the Sun Belt Conference championship game being canceled will never go away for many involved with the program.

For some, though, it’s made the goal for this next game crystal clear.

“Domination,” UL senior linebacker Joe Dillon said. “I want to dominate in all aspects … like no breathing room for nothing. It’s been a while since we played, so it’s time to full-out dominate for every aspect of a football game.”

Indeed, this is still an angry football team.

This squad was 100% convinced it was going to win at Coastal Carolina. To not get that opportunity should give them an unreal amount of motivation for this bowl game … as long as the emotional scars deep down didn’t somehow derail the desire out of the players and coaches.

“From a football perspective, it was one of the more challenging things we’ve had to go through,” Napier said.

Ponder that statement for a moment.

This is 2020, folks. Think of all the craziness that’s been required to get to the first game, much less actually play 10 of them in a pandemic to get into a position to play for a league crown.

Yet through it all, Napier had his Cajuns focused. Starting with the Texas State game, the “playoffs” began for this program.

They all bought into that approach and they all progressed according to the plan.

“We played four West teams in a row and clinched the West, we go to App State and find a way to win, we continue to improve our rankings, and we positioned ourselves to really finish exactly how we had planned it,” Napier explained.

“We had improved as a team and had gotten better. We were focused. I think it was the most prepared to play a game since I’ve been here as a head coach.”

Then, in an instant, it was all gone ... all for naught, through no fault of their own.

Out of left field, the big carrot at the end of the master plan was ripped away.

“I think the emotion that comes with that, certainly these young men were very invested in that opportunity to play for a championship,” Napier said. “I think that was a very difficult thing for us all to come to grips with. It was almost surreal. As you would expect, they were very disappointed and it certainly has been a challenge to control some of these emotions that come with that.”

Not playing a football game isn’t life and death, some may say. True, but that doesn’t mean the discouragement isn’t real, nor the transition to playing another game the following week automatic.

“Certainly, this pales in comparison to informing a team or a staff about the loss of life,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said about the cancellation. “This isn’t in the same category as the 35 phone calls I made to each baseball player after coach (Tony) Robichaux passed.

“But I will tell you outside of that type of catastrophic event, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and that’s stand up in front of a team at 10 p.m. in a hotel banquet room and tell them that we had to cancel the game and we could not play for a Sun Belt championship.”

No one is questioning the togetherness or mental toughness of this team, but very few teams, if any, in college football history have had to deal with this kind of a late-season curve ball behind the head.

And none have had to play a game a week later.

Ask yourself, how many hard-core UL fans threw up their hands in utter disgust upon hearing the news and haven’t watched another game since?

On Saturday, we’ll all find out if a week is long enough to effectively process their disappointment and prepare for a worthy opponent at the same time.

“Right now, we’re trying to turn the page as a staff and get things organized and be prepared,” Napier said.

In the mind of redshirt junior center Shane Vallot, the Cajuns just don’t have a choice.

“That’s my biggest thing right now,” Vallot said. “These seniors are hurting … a lot of them are hurting a lot, because this sucks. I’m a redshirt junior and we’ve got guys who are freshman, it hurts everybody. But the biggest thing is to finish this thing out the right way and the only way to do that is to finish out with a win and to have fun while we’re doing it.”

Somehow it just can’t end like this … first no conference championship game and then a bowl loss after all the progress that’s been made, right?

“Let’s go out on a winning fashion,” Vallot continued. “I know this sucks, but I don’t want to go out with a loss in 2020. We came so far. We went 9-1. We made history this year just like we did last year. We came too far, like coach said, to go out with a black eye.”

As a team leader, Vallot’s certainly saying all the right things.

Fair or not, there’s also a point to be made.

“It’s the biggest bowl game in UL history, so it’s a huge opportunity to showcase our talent ,” Vallot said. “When we put the ball down against UTSA and Coastal (Carolina) puts the ball down against Liberty, then we’ll let the world see who's playing better ball and what would have happened.

“I think this is a big game for us. We can’t let that linger with us.”

On Saturday, we’ll find out if his teammates are more angry or alienated.

Unlike any other team, an A-plus in intangibles will be required.


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.