Halfway there: Ragin’ Cajuns seek to overcome slow starts _lowres

Advocate photo by BRAD KEMP -- Arkansas State safety Cody Brown returns an interception for a touchdown as Louisiana-Lafayette tight end Nick Byrne tries to bring him down during their game Tuedsay in Jonesboro, Ak..

LAFAYETTE — UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth was guilty of hyperbole when he said his team might be one of the best second-half teams in the country, but the other half of his statement was true.

“Unfortunately,” Hudspeth said. “We’re not very good in the first half.”

That was evident Tuesday, when the Cajuns went to the halftime break trailing Arkansas State 34-14, a score that was made a little easier to stomach thanks to a last-minute touchdown.

It was the continuation of a disturbing trend for the Cajuns this season. They’ve been outscored 125-76 in the first half this season. Counting only the losses, that number sits at an ugly 101-35.

They trailed 26-7 at Kentucky, 14-7 to Akron and 29-7 at Louisiana Tech before turning in arguably their worst first-half performance of the year against Arkansas State.

Their numbers have improved in the second halves of most of their performances this year, though how much of that can be attributed to the other team being comfortable with a big lead is impossible to quantify. And it hasn’t been as drastic as Hudspeth suggests, as the Cajuns have been outscored 54-53 in the second half of the games they’ve lost.

But one half of solid football isn’t going to get the job done.

“This is not a two-quarter game, this is a four-quarter game,” Hudspeth said. “Until we figure four quarters out, we’re going to continue to struggle.”

So what’s behind the slow starts for the Cajuns? Well, that’s the $1 million question.

“That’s what we are trying to figure out right now,” Hudspeth said.

The Advocate compiled statistical splits between the first and second halves from all the Cajuns games this season in an attempt to find the smoking gun behind the Cajuns’ Jekyll and Hyde performances this season.

While there aren’t any huge discrepancies that can be pointed out as the one major item the Cajuns need work on, the numbers point out a few clues that match what’s been painfully obvious from watching the team.

Too many chunk plays

The strange trend that pops out while looking at the stats from this season’s games: While opposing quarterbacks have carved up the Cajuns for some big yardage totals, they aren’t completing many of their passes.

The Cajuns are ranked ninth nationally in opponent completion percentage, which doesn’t intuitively align with how the Cajuns have graded in the eyeball test. Here is an instance where the numbers are misleading.

Part of the discrepancy can likely be attributed to the amount of low-percentage throws opposing quarterbacks are making against the Cajuns secondary. While those passes haven’t been completed frequently, they’re going for big gains when they’re hit.

Last week, Arkansas quarterback Freddie Knighten went just 3-for-12 in the first half, but one of those completions went for a 46-yard touchdown deep down the middle of the field.

In the opener against Kentucky, quarterback Patrick Towles barely completed 50 percent of his passes in the first half, but the majority of his completions went for big gains deep downfield against single coverage. Of his 219 first-half passing yards, 191 came on just six first-half completions.

The run game is part of this equation, too. On the Cajuns’ first defensive play of the season, Kentucky’s Boom Williams went 75 yards for a score. Quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Thomas Woodson beat the Cajuns for a couple big runs out of the backfield. Last week, Arkansas State rolled up 211 rushing yards in the first half, 154 of which came on seven plays.

Chunk plays — runs of 10 or more yards and passes of 15 or more — have killed the Cajuns defense this season, especially in those first halves of games they’ve lost. They’ve given up 1,034 yards in those games, and a whopping 63 percent of those yards came on 28 chunk plays.

Not enough turnovers

Not enough isn’t accurate, actually.

The most important number related to the Cajuns’ first halves this season: Zero. As in zero fumble recoveries, zero interceptions. All four of the Cajuns’ forced turnovers have come in the second half.

In the four losses, opposing offenses have put together nine first-half touchdown drives of 75 or more yards. Hudspeth is fond of saying that making a team go the length of the field gives the defense more opportunities to make mistakes, but it just hasn’t happened yet.

The Cajuns have had their opportunities but haven’t cashed them in. The opponents, meanwhile, are doing quite nicely with what they’ve gotten from the Cajuns.

The Cajuns offense, for its part, is handing out turnovers about evenly in both halves, with five first-half turnovers against seven second-half turnovers.

But the first-half turnovers have been particularly costly. Two of the interceptions were returned for touchdowns, one fumble happened inside the opponent’s 5-yard line and one fumble was a muffed punt that erased great field position at the end of the first half against Akron.

No forced turnovers by the defense plus critical turnovers by the offense is not a winning equation.

No offensive rhythm

Looked at the whole, there isn’t much disparity between the Cajuns’ first- and second-half offensive numbers in their four losses.

In the first halves of those four games, they’ve run for 394 yards and four touchdowns on 70 carries and thrown for 316 yards and one touchdown. In the second halves, they’ve run for 346 yards and four touchdowns on 66 carries, with 524 yards and three scores through the air. That’s an average difference of 40 yards and half a touchdown per half, per game.

What’s hurt the Cajuns has been their inability to string some solid series together.

Against Arkansas State on Tuesday, the Cajuns had the ball 10 times in the first half, but seven of those drives resulted in 12 or fewer yards. During one particularly fruitless string of five straight possessions, the Cajuns went three-and-out three times, gained five yards on five plays on one drive and threw a pick-six on the other.

Their last four first half drives at Louisiana Tech netted a total of 29 yards, including the ill-devised plan to throw downfield with 10 seconds remaining from deep in their own territory that resulted in an interception return for a touchdown.

They went three-and-out on their first two possessions against Akron and at one point in the second quarter Akron had more points (14) than the Cajuns had yards (8).

When they have put things together in those games, disaster struck. They strung three consecutive 10-plus play drives together against Kentucky but fumbled inside the Wildcats’ 5 on one and stalled just outside of field-goal range on the other thanks to a penalty.

After their slow start against Akron, the Cajuns put back-to-back long drives together, but they were stopped from tying the game when they couldn’t punch it in on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line.

Rather than being the well-oiled machine it has been in years past, the Cajuns offense is performing like a misfiring engine. It’ll run smoothly for a bit before it trips and lurches, then it has to catch back up to the other car in the race.

This has been the pattern of the Cajuns’ season so far: Opposing offense connects on a few big plays to open up an early lead, Cajuns commit costly turnover to inhibit comeback chances then sputter offensively while the lead grows.

There’s still time to rewrite that story, but first the Cajuns have to find the answers to the questions Hudspeth is asking himself, his staff and his players.

“Poor execution early,” Hudspeth said. “Why? That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Are we doing too much? Are we not doing enough? Are we making adjustments soon enough?”