Johnson: After early adversity, Ragin’ Cajuns find strength _lowres

Photo by BRAD KEMP/ -- UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth shakes hans with fans after their 45-23 victory over Troy at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Troy, Ala.

TROY, Ala. — I know it might be painful, and it may seem counterproductive in the wake of a convincing win to wrap up the regular season, but take a trip with me to darker times.

It’s late September, and the Ragin’ Cajuns have lost three in a row. No, it’s worse than that. They have been run out of the stadium in three games, embarrassed, losing by a combined 138-44 score.

Still visible are the oozing cleat marks left when Louisiana Tech, Ole Miss and Boise State took turns running over the Cajuns with impunity. The Cajuns, at this point, are battered, bruised and defeated — defeated, already, four games into the season.

At this point, forget about the postseason. You’re just wondering if the Cajuns are going to reach .500.

You’re not the only one wondering.

The seeds of doubt were sown all over the Cajuns football program, where thoughts are still centered on all those lofty goals that were pulverized into dust by the Bulldogs, Rebels and Broncos.

The Cajuns can’t stop a quarterback with a pulse. Their own quarterback is playing the worst football of his career. They are dead in the water.

It’s late September, and the sharks are circling around a flagging football team.

It’s here, on this sinking ship, where the team had to make a decision: Grab a life vest and fight for life, or continue fading.

“You’re at the point where you’re 1-3, you can go one of two ways,” coach Mark Hudspeth said. “You can pull the plug, or you can pull together. This team pulled together.”

The fight-or-flight response was triggered, and the Cajuns started throwing punches.

Looking back on it now, the game that started it all wasn’t that impressive. The Cajuns needed a late touchdown to pull ahead of Georgia State then had to cling to life in a 34-31 win Oct. 4.

Georgia State has since been blown out by just about everybody on its schedule. Since its three-point loss to the Cajuns, Georgia State has lost seven straight games by an average of nearly 30 points per game to close its regular season with a 1-11 record.

Style points didn’t matter, though. The “how it happened” that made the losing streak so terrible didn’t register that night, because Cajuns had finally rediscovered winning football.

More importantly, considering present-day matters, they learned how to bounce back from disappointment.

Last week’s game against Appalachian State was exactly that — a disappointment. The Cajuns’ six-game winning streak was snapped at home, on senior night, when at least a share of the conference title was still under their control.

How easy it would’ve been to slide right back into another fade. The worst that could happen was framed so perfectly.

On Saturday, the Cajuns were coming off a deflating loss and were set to face an amped-up Troy squad playing for more than just its fourth win of the season. Troy wanted to send longtime coach Larry Blakeney — the man with his name on the field — out with a win.

So, what would it be?

Fight or flight?

The Cajuns absorbed the Trojans’ best shot, when emotions from the pregame ceremony honoring Blakeney were still running high. Then they throttled Troy down the stretch. They ran away with the regular-season finale with 21 unanswered points in the second half to turn a nail-biter into a blowout by the fourth quarter.

They certainly didn’t look like a team that was going to wilt at the first sign of adversity. They’ve been through worse than what they saw Saturday.

“Being 1-3 can tear a team apart or bring a team closer,” senior running back Alonzo Harris said.

The bleakness of September may have eliminated some of the Cajuns’ greater goals. But it may have also forged a stronger team.