LAFAYETTE — Both Louisiana-Lafayette and Akron owe a debt to North Alabama.
The Division II school in Florence, known as “Alabama’s Renaissance City,” was responsible for both Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth and Zips boss Terry Bowden making a big step toward their current jobs leading Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Both were hugely successful with the Lions, Hudspeth going 44-8 in his final four years with three trips to the national Division II semifinals, and Bowden going 29-9 in his three years.
Hudspeth took a quick detour to Mississippi State for two seasons after a six-year run at UNA, before joining the Cajuns in 2011. Bowden made the jump from Florence to Akron for the 2012 season.
The two are indelibly connected, and Saturday’s 6 p.m. contest when Bowden brings his team to Cajun Field for the second meeting of the schools only adds to that connection.
A.J. Milwee, Akron’s offensive coordinator, was Hudspeth’s record-setting quarterback at UNA from 2006-08.
“He’s probably the youngest OC in the country,” Hudspeth said. “He was a great player and a smart player. ... We won a lot of games with him at quarterback.”
Bowden lost a coach, and he and Hudspeth both lost a close friend, when Alan “Tank” Arrington, offensive line coach for UNA and Akron, died in an automobile wreck 21 months ago. Both spoke at the funeral, and Arrington’s widow, Gail, is a house guest with the Hudspeths this weekend.
They’re all close enough that, after Saturday’s game, they’ll be comparing notes to help both teams improve heading into their conference play.
“There’s no time to catch up before the game. We’re all pretty busy,” Hudspeth said. “The week after, we’ll try to catch up and say, both sides, ‘What did you see when you scouted us?’ We don’t play in the foreseeable future. We’ll ask them some things, and they’ll do the same, ask what we saw when we were preparing for each other.”
What each team has seen has been similar in result. Both lost to “Power Five” conference competition and dominated FCS opponents so far, with UL-Lafayette (1-1) losing in the final minute 40-33 to Kentucky and rolling past Northwestern State 44-17.
Akron came back from an early deficit to crunch Savannah State 52-9 on Saturday. But before that, the Zips struggled mightily in losses to Oklahoma (41-3) and Pittsburgh (24-7). In the latter, Akron was held to 105 yards and eight first downs.
Heading into the Savannah State game, Akron was last nationally in scoring. Even after that big win, the Zips are last nationally in pass completion percentage (38.3).
Bowden channeled his father, legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, when filling in his local media about the Ragin’ Cajuns.
“This is a very good program,” said Bowden, whose team won five games last year after winning three in the previous three years combined. “Dad-gummit, that’s where we want to be.”
“They’re like we are, trying to come in here and get their season rolling now,” Hudspeth said. “They’re about to get into conference play like us, so they’ll be pumped and we have to be prepared.”
Saturday is the final nonconference game for Akron. Thanks to the early open date, UL-Lafayette still has one more non-league game — next Saturday at Louisiana Tech.
There’s a little more at stake than a regular nonconference game, with the College Football Playoff system providing significant league payouts based on regular-season and bowl successes against “peer” conferences. The Sun Belt was last among the “Group of Five” leagues last year, and commissioner Karl Benson stressed success for his team against those leagues at the Sun Belt’s summer media day.
“The Sun Belt’s success outside the conference will determine where we’re ranked,” Hudspeth said. “There are things riding on it, so we want to do well when we play out of conference.”
Winning can provide its own rewards. The Cajuns were 1-2 in 2013 when they traveled north and took a 35-30 road win at Akron, and that victory started an eight-game winning streak — the longest in school history — and led to the second of what is now four straight 9-4 seasons.
Akron will have a change at quarterback, with sophomore Tommy Woodson getting the start after coming off the bench against Savannah and hitting 12 of 20 passes for 207 yards and a score. He replaces struggling sophomore Tra’Von Chapman (10-for-35, 157 yards), a highly regarded transfer from Pittsburgh.
UL-Lafayette again will have Brooks Haack under center after the junior completed 7 of 8 passes for 187 yards against Northwestern State. The Cajuns only threw nine times against the Demons, relying on a ground game that ranks ninth nationally (303.5 yards per game). Junior quarterback Jalen Nixon, who ignited a late comeback at Kentucky but missed the Northwestern State game with a shoulder injury, is scheduled to see some action.
The Cajuns’ limited throwing against the Demons was linked to Elijah McGuire’s success. The junior broke loose for an 88-yard touchdown run, one of his record-tying five rushing scores in a 162-yard performance, leading a 360-yard team effort.
The Cajuns offense will challenge an Akron defense that has held its own despite the Zips’ offensive struggles. That unit of defensive coordinator Chuck Amato, a 43-year collegiate coaching veteran and longtime assistant under the elder Bowden at FSU, has held opponents to 301 rushing yards and a 2.7-yard average per carry through three games.
“They have a very talented defensive line and a linebacker corps that can really run,” Hudspeth said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge for us to decipher the code early, because they do a lot defensively, and each week is a different defensive game plan.”