There were so many things the No. 25-ranked UL Ragin’ Cajuns wanted to accomplish in Saturday’s Sun Belt West showdown against South Alabama at Cajun Field.
And as coach Billy Napier and his team walked off the field with a convincing 38-10 victory, it was hard to find a category that wasn’t properly handled.
The first and most important box to the checked was securing a third straight spot in the Sun Belt Conference championship game. The win did that. It also moved the Cajuns to 11-0 against West division teams in Napier’s three seasons at the helm.
“It’s good to see our team rise to the occasion,” Napier said. “It was a big game – Western Division opportunity to seal it – and we really kind of had some intensity and urgency about us throughout the week. Pregame today, we had a little bit different of an edge about us.
"We’re going to need to do that more going forward."
In achieving that goal, the No. 1 priority in the Cajuns’ mind was to match South Alabama’s physical approach on the line of scrimmage.
Quite frankly, Napier said his teams were humbled over the past two seasons in that area of the field, and the Cajuns responded with a vengeance this time around.
As for stopping the run, it was done about as well as could be expected, limiting the Jaguars to 123 rushing yards for the game. Even that was a bit deceiving, because 41 of those came on the game’s final drive with the outcome no longer close to in doubt.
“That was at the top of the list to try to control the line of scrimmage,” Napier said. “Stop the run, create some negatives, make them play in second-and-long and third-and-long. We certainly did that today.”
The defense collected seven tackles behind the line and three sacks.
On the other side, the Cajuns’ offense ran the ball with relative ease for much of the game. UL’s first eight plays from scrimmage were all running plays for 37 yards and the Cajuns rode that offensive line’s push the rest of the way.
“Early in the first possession, we were able to rush the ball,” Napier said. “I wasn’t sure based off the tape, where we would match up, but I thought the guys up front really accepted the challenge. We played well, won the line of scrimmage and really did a nice job on the edges
“That allowed us to have balanced the rest of the day.”
Led by Chris Smith with 99 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, the Cajuns ran for 254 yards and two scores on the day.
“We talk a lot about trying to get the ball to the second level,” Napier said. “To do that, you’ve got to block the box, but you also have to get really good work from the perimeter. The receivers have got to take pride in blocking without the ball.”
Trey Ragas added 78 yards on 10 carries, while Elijah Mitchell added 61 on 15 tries.
“The past couple of weeks, we haven’t been running the ball to the best of our ability,” Ragas said. “We just made sure we hit the hole as hard as we can. The O-line got a good push this week.”
Amazingly, both Smith and Mitchell turned in game-high 47-yard runs in the game.
“It was a stretch play,” Smith said of his 47-yarder. “We’ve been working on it all week.”
The other major point of emphasis during the week was getting it done on third down.
South Alabama’s defense had only allowed opponent a success rate of 33 percent on third down. On Saturday, the Cajuns converted six times in 13 tries.
UL’s defense, though, was spectacular in that area, limiting South Alabama to 6-of-18 (for 33 percent) on third down. The Jags were also 3-of-5 on fourth down.
“The longer the better,” Napier said. “We’ve played them two years in a row and it’s almost third-and-manageable. They’ve been able to keep it third-and-short, a two-down approach, and we kept them from doing that today. Where it started was winning on first down.”
Even when the Jaguars’ offense was able to put together two long drives, they only produced minimal damage.
In the first half, a 15-play, 52-yard drive ended with a 26-yard field goal to narrow UL’s gap to 14-3.
Then in the second quarter, a 13-play, 46-yard drive ended with a turnover on downs at the UL 10.
For the game, UL outgained South Alabama 506-268, including outrushing the Jags 254-123 and outpassing them as well 252-145.
The special teams also pitched into the win with Eric Garror returning a punt 38 yards to set up UL’s second touchdown drive of the game in building a quick 14-0 lead.
“We were balanced on offense,” Napier said. “Levi (Lewis) was sharp. We had good coverage throughout the day and we tackled well. I thought all three areas of the team – offense, defense and game changers – we had good plans.
“We talked about playing our best football and no question, I thought that was our best performance of the year as a football team.”
Lewis was 21-of-31 passing for 252 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
“He had a full and complete understanding of what they were doing,” Napier said of Lewis.