Billy Napier had something between a grin and a grimace on his face Saturday night after his UL football team took a 35-14 home-opener win over Liberty University that was a lot easier than the score suggested.
The second-year Ragin’ Cajuns coach liked many things he saw in the win, but even a victory that allowed his team to get 66 players into action and to nearly empty the bench of available participants in the final half of the fourth quarter didn’t come without its issues.
“As happy as I was, I kind of grit my teeth and smile at you and tell you that I celebrated the win, but I know that we could have played better,” Napier said. “Sometimes we get too consumed with the outcome, but we had opportunities in that game to blow it open and make it an absolutely lopsided win and we didn’t necessarily do that.”
It’s the beauty … and some would argue the curse … of being a coach.
The Cajuns (1-1) did dominate the last two and one-half quarters, scoring 28 unanswered points offensively and pitching a shutout on defense after the nine-minute mark of the second period.
UL’s 407-yard rushing total, one that boosted the Cajuns to 12th nationally (285.0 yards per game), was the highest in nearly five seasons, and the Cajuns had dual 100-yard rushers (Trey Ragas 137, Raymond Calais 115) for the fourth time in their past 14 games. UL’s 593-yard offensive total was 225 more yards than Liberty had allowed to then-No. 22 Syracuse in its opening game.
Defensively, UL held the visiting Flames to only two third-down conversions, and held Liberty to 149 yards on its last eight possessions after the Flames had taken a surprising 14-7 lead. Outside of a second-quarter 66-yard scoring burst by running back Frankie Hickson, UL’s defense held Liberty to 2.8 yards per rush.
Still, Napier said there was plenty of room for improvement going into Saturday’s second straight home game, one against Texas Southern’s Tigers in which the Cajuns will be a huge favorite.
“You start with the things that are uncharacteristic, and not the type of team that I want to have or our staff wants to have,” he said. “Certainly our players get it, too. We want to start with eliminating turnovers and any undisciplined penalties, bad decisions, the type of scenarios where it has nothing to do with the opponent. We’ve got two games of feedback now, we’ve got a legitimate sample and we kind of know where we’re at.”
One thing Napier would like to see is his team get off to a faster start. Both in the opener against Mississippi State in New Orleans and in Saturday’s win, the opponents took the opening kickoff and marched to a relatively easy score. The Bulldogs scored in six plays, and the Flames went 75 yards in eight plays Saturday for a quick 7-0 lead. In both games, it took the Cajuns nearly the rest of the first period to get an equalizer.
After giving up that early score, UL drove inside the Flames’ 35-yard line on all but one possession the rest of the night and punted only once — that with eight minutes left and already up by three touchdowns. But three missed field goals, two turnovers inside Liberty’s 15-yard line and two penalties that nullified long punt returns kept Liberty within range.
“We need to improve on how we start,” he said. “We’ve got to fix that, and we’re going to spend time trying to resolve that. If I knew that answer, we would have gotten it fixed Saturday, but it’s an area we’re going to emphasize. We need to focus on what we can control. That’s a broken record and every coach in America says it, but it’s the truth. The first way you win is you don’t beat yourself.”
Napier said the Cajuns’ 96-second drive to a score before halftime and its six-play, 75-yard march to start the third quarter provided some breathing room.
“The game never felt out of hand,” he said, “but the critical turn of events was the end of the second quarter and the first possession of the second half. To be able to score touchdown, touchdown there, we executed in two situations we didn’t do well in the first game in New Orleans.”
That burst allowed UL to use its depth advantage, but Napier said his staff planned on getting a lot of players involved despite the game situation. They wound up using over 30 different faces on offense and almost 30 on defense.
“We played a lot of people, even from the jump,” Napier said. “We knew it was going to be hot and humid, and we felt like we’ve got lots of players that are in comparable places so we committed to playing them and rolling them throughout. At the end we did play some who maybe hadn’t played up to that point, and that’s a huge benefit because now those players are going to make significant improvement.”
There were a few moments early on in UL’s 35-14 win over Liberty where some Ragin’ Cajuns fans were likely beginning to worry about their defense.