In one way, things aren’t much different than they were 12 months ago for UL’s football team.
Last October, the Ragin’ Cajuns were coming off a tough loss at Appalachian State, a 27-17 defeat that dropped them to 1-2 in conference play, and UL was facing a stiff task in Sun Belt Conference West Division favorite Arkansas State only seven days later.
For Cajuns coach Billy Napier, though, this year is a lot different. He attributes much of that to his team rising to the occasion and taking a thrilling 47-43 win over the favored Red Wolves in that bounce-back contest a year ago.
“The first App State game (last season) gave us a little bit of conviction about the work we’d been doing,” said Napier, whose squad travels to Jonesboro, Arkansas, to face A-State on Thursday in a second straight nationally televised (ESPNU) mid-week game. “To find a way in a back-and-forth game showed a lot of the mental toughness, and maybe the intangible things, that we’d been working really hard on.
“I do think it was a big game for us. Last year they were picked to win the West, and having them at our place was a big deal.”
That Cajun Field victory came courtesy of a late 55-yard drive and Trey Ragas’ 2-yard touchdown run for the final score, capping a night in which the Cajuns tallied 547 total yards. UL and A-State swapped the lead four times in the final period.
That win also wound up as the tiebreaker that gave the Cajuns the Sun Belt West Division title in the first year the league had divisional play and staged a championship game. Both UL and A-State finished at 5-3, and the heads-up win put the Cajuns into the inaugural title game at Appalachian State.
“You know, as much as we love to talk about it,” Napier said of last year’s win over the Red Wolves, “that’s not going to impact the game Thursday night. These teams have tremendous history, and any time you go up there it can be difficult. They’ve got a strong following, and this is a divisional game so it has double implications.
“With this divisional format and the championship game, when you play one of these games against an opponent in the West, there’s implications relative to tiebreakers; we know that from last year’s experience.”
The Cajuns (4-2, 1-1) are coming off the 17-7 home loss to Appalachian State on Wednesday, a game in which UL’s defense stepped to the forefront and limited the Sun Belt’s top-scoring team to touchdowns on only its first and last possessions.
However, UL’s previously potent offense also was stymied by the Mountaineers defense to the tune of 254 offensive yards, less than half the Cajuns' 540-yard average entering the game. It also was UL's lowest point output since Napier took over before the 2018 season.
That win vaulted App State into the national rankings, with the unbeaten Mountaineers standing No. 24 in both the AP and coaches’ polls. It also left Napier wondering how he could have flipped the game in UL's favor.
“We left a fourth-and-1, a fourth-and-goal seven-point opportunity out there, and certainly a three-point field goal early in the second half,” he said. “I pride myself on giving the players the answers, always being able to say we gave our players an opportunity, (that) we had the pieces of the puzzle in the right spots. This past game, more plays than usual, I’ve got to look myself in the mirror.
“We didn’t execute or play with any type of consistency on offense throughout the day. But you can’t help but be pleased and sense the progress that we’re making on defense, and certainly on special teams.”
Sophomore punter Rhys Byrns was the standout on those special teams, earning Sun Belt Special Teams Player of the Week honors after an impressive display of marksmanship against the Mountaineers. The Melbourne, Australia, native punted six times for a 49.3 average, and he started App State from its 1-, 3-, 5- and 15-yard line on four punts.
“During the week I watched film and saw they mostly held up and didn’t rush too much,” said Byrns, who had only punted 11 times in UL’s previous five games. “That let us take more time, and I could pinpoint it inside the 10. Those guys covering do an outstanding job … they deserve more credit than I do, really.”