The season-long search for the “complete” game will continue for at least one more week for the No. 25-ranked UL Ragin’ Cajuns.
Coming off a 614-yard performance at Texas State, Saturday’s homecoming game against Arkansas State seemed to be the perfect opportunity to take the big step.
It didn’t happen.
The offense struggled to get anything done in the first half in the 27-20 comeback win.
But while getting shut out in the first half was alarming, something happened in the fourth quarter that might have made it all worth while.
Sometimes, hardships are necessary before all your ducks can be in a row.
Trusting the kicker has been an issue for UL throughout the season. Nate Snyder missed a 30-yard field goal in the first half.
So with the offense still not clicking on all cylinders in the fourth quarter, UL coach Billy Napier gave three-year backup Kenny Almendares a shot.
Not only did the redshirt sophomore from Clute, Texas, nail two field goals — starting with a 35-yarder with 8:21 left to go to give the Cajuns a 17-12 lead at the time — but he made it look easy.
“To me, it’s like a new beginning,” Almendares said. “It’s like a new start for me.”
Imagine how many nights over the past three years Almendares went to sleep wondering if it would never happen. You could see the euphoria and relief in his huge smile on the Zoom media conference after Saturday’s win.
On Saturday, he had indeed delivered in a big way — both for himself and his team.
“It opens a lot for me and it gives me that confidence that what I’m doing is worth it,” Almendares said.
His second field goal — a 43-yarder for a 20-12 lead with 3:59 left — really brought some huge relief to UL’s sideline.
With 6:06 left, UL running back Elijah Mitchell ran 47 yards to the ASU 2.
On the play, however, guard O’Cyrus Torrence was flagged for a late hit way behind the play. Three plays later, quarterback Levi Lewis took a 12-yard sack to suddenly back the Cajuns up to the 27.
Almendares made sure all wasn’t lost by nailing the 43-yard field goal and at least securing an eight-point lead.
“Levi, that was really uncharacteristic of him,” Napier said of the sack. “He went over there and kissed Kenny Almendares on the cheek after he made that field goal.”
Naturally, it’s just one game. Time will tell if Almendares is the answer to the team’s kicking situation.
Having faith that short field goals are automatic is huge for a coach’s decision-making process.
If Saturday’s game resolved that issue, all the angst during it was worth it.
Of course, there were more areas responsible for yet another halftime deficit. The Cajuns have only enjoyed a halftime lead once all season.
Napier included himself in that conversation.
“I think I could have coached a little bit better at times out there today,” Napier said. “I thought that from a play-calling standpoint, I could have been a little bit better.
“Specifically, in the fringe and the red zone and then in the gold zone, it was not one of our better days. I need to help the players. Some of those possessions were on me.”
Regardless of the reasons in each game, the Cajuns would love to get started quicker and avoid early deficits the rest of the way.
“Oh man, there’s no doubt we’ve talked about it,” Napier said of slow starts. “I think we only scored one offensive touchdown in the first quarter going into the Texas State game. We’ve been talking a lot about it. We’ve been reviewing all that from a self-scout analytics standpoint.”
The good thing for the Cajuns is while the search continues, they’ve found a way to start the season 6-1 overall and 4-1 in Sun Belt play.
The next chance to get closer to perfection is 1 p.m. Saturday against South Alabama at Cajun Field.
Either that, or another opportunity to unveil another solution.