LAFAYETTE — Mobile quarterbacks have been a thorn in the Louisiana-Lafayette defense’s collective side, and the Ragin’ Cajuns will face their most elusive opponent to date Tuesday night.
Last year, the Cajuns counteracted Arkansas State dual-threat standout Fredi Knighten with a dominant rushing attack of their own: Elijah McGuire and current Green Bay Packers running back Alonzo Harris combined for eight touchdowns in what became a 55-40 victory.
The question going into Tuesday night’s Sun Belt Conference matchup in Jonesboro, Arkansas: Can the Cajuns do it again?
Mark Hudspeth isn’t sure.
“They are different than they were last year,” the UL-Lafayette coach said of the Red Wolves, who welcome the Cajuns to Centennial Bank Stadium for a 7 p.m. contest that will air on ESPN2. “They’re better at the point of attack. They play a lot more head-up with their looks in the front, and they get a lot of guys in the box to try to stop the run.”
Arkansas State still has Knighten, the preseason all-Sun Belt quarterback who accounted for 4,056 yards and 35 touchdowns last year. The senior averaged 60 rushing yards and 252 passing yards per game last year, and he topped both of those marks (61 rushing and 344 passing) in last year’s loss at Cajun Field.
Knighten missed three games with a groin injury suffered late in the Red Wolves’ 27-20 loss at Missouri in September. He returned to action Tuesday, throwing for two scores in a 49-31 win at South Alabama.
His numbers were down, but Hudspeth and the Cajuns expect Knighten to be more ready Tuesday.
“He’s fast — very fast,” said Cajuns sophomore defensive end Blain Winston, who had two stops for loss and a sack in last week’s 49-27 win over Texas State. “But he also makes great decisions. He didn’t look like he’d had an injury. We’ve got a tough task on our hands.”
“I thought he looked the same as always,” Hudspeth said. “He can make things happen, extend plays. He’s always a handful — that’s for sure.”
The Cajuns defense has had its hands full with dual-threat quarterbacks in the past three games. Akron’s Thomas Woodson ran for 93 yards and a touchdown, and Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel rushed for 56 yards and a score; neither had a negative-yardage play in those back-to-back UL-Lafayette losses.
Texas State’s Tyler Jones rushed for 65 yards and a score in last Saturday’s matchup, giving opposing quarterbacks 214 yards, three touchdowns and an 8.2-yard average against the Cajuns since mid-September.
UL-Lafayette (2-3, 1-0) and Arkansas State (3-3, 2-0) will play one of the league’s Tuesday feature games for the fourth straight year, with the Cajuns winning the past two. Last year’s game showcased the Cajuns running game, which racked up 419 yards. McGuire had 265 of those, the third-highest rushing total in UL-Lafayette history, and is coming off a season-best 170 yards against Texas State.
McGuire’s performance last year made a believer out of Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson, who was the Cajuns’ offensive coordinator in 2007.
“When they’re doing well, it’s because he’s doing great things,” Anderson said. “If we can slow him down and keep him from having a game like he did a year ago, it’s going to be another competitive game.”
McGuire has had at least 80 yards in all five games this year, posting 585 yards and seven scores. In his second start, quarterback Jalen Nixon was 22-of-29 for 238 yards and three scores and ran for 45 yards and a TD against Texas State after being bothered by a shoulder injury in the previous week’s loss at Louisiana Tech.
“He had a lot of zip on his passes,” Hudspeth said. “He really threw some darts. He’s getting more experienced at getting to the line and making the right calls, getting his tempo right, but I think mostly it’s his shoulder that’s healed.”
The Red Wolves stuck with a ground attack in their two conference wins, and that worked to the tune of 559 rushing yards against Idaho and South Alabama. Arkansas State gave up 66 points in those wins, but the Red Wolves defense has come up with turnovers at the right time: 16 of them in six games after forcing South Alabama into five. Arkansas State’s 13 interceptions are tied for first nationally.
“Luckily we don’t throw it 45 times a game,” Hudspeth said. “We just tell Jalen to take what the defense gives you. We want to be able to run it effectively, and hopefully that opens up some play-action for us.”
UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State are the winningest teams in Sun Belt history, posting 58 and 54 conference wins since the league was founded in 2001. Both teams have 38 wins since 2011, tied with BYU for the eighth-most among schools in the “Group of Five” conferences.
“We don’t need much motivation for this one,” Winston said. “They’re a great team. This goes way back to before I committed here.”