The offseason of hype and living off last year’s breakthrough season officially ended in Austin, Texas on Saturday for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns.
From beginning to end, last season, UL coach Billy Napier was never comfortable with his team’s execution, despite finishing 10-1 and ranked No. 15 in the final AP poll.
Saturday’s 38-18 opening loss to No. 19-ranked Texas didn’t put an end to that.
“We also have a lot of work to do to improve in certain areas,” Napier said. “Some of that is us and some of that is Texas, like most weeks. A lot of time it just comes down to be sound and executing.”
The Cajuns didn't execute well in their 2021 opener.
The No. 1 concern after the first game is the passing game didn’t make any progress.
A year ago, the story was a young, depleted receiving corps was the reason.
This season, the talent and the depth were upgraded dramatically. It's time to see progress in that area.
Napier has two weeks to get that area strengthened before Sun Belt Conference play starts.
Quarterback Levi Lewis numbers didn’t look bad — 28-of-40 passing for 282 yards and a score — but much of that was late and there was no rhythm in the passing game.
Senior receiver Jalen Williams said the receivers just didn’t execute. Whatever the reason, Lewis spent a lot of time in the pocket either not noticing open receivers or not seeing any.
“We did some good things, but I also think there were some opportunities that we missed to be blunt,” Napier said.
The big preseason question was the running game. On paper, that area certainly wasn’t overwhelming with 29 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown.
But true freshman Montrell Johnson stood out as he has in camp. He looked the part with six carries for 27 yards.
The interior of the offensive line got a push on most runs early.
“Those guys were competitive,” Napier said. “Overall, we were getting some push. We had our chances.
“Young players when they get that opportunity, they maybe don’t understand what it takes to prepare or what the game’s going to be like. Once they get out there and get some confidence, I think you’ll see that ability really come to the forefront.”
The problem was the offense didn’t possess the ball and the defense didn’t do its part, allowing Texas to convert seven of its first 11 third downs.
Before UL’s two-minute drive to end the first half, Texas had 37 snaps to only 19 for the Cajuns.
That’s not a winning formula against a team equal or more talented than you.
Elsewhere, it was a frustrating day for defensive coordinator Patrick Toney. He preaches “junction points” constantly to his defense.
Essentially, there are moments in a game where it comes down to one-on-one situations for the unit to succeed.
His defense didn’t make many of those plays Saturday. Last year at Iowa State, the Cajuns’ secondary tackled and was more physical, reducing the passing game’s impact.
On Saturday, it Texas displayed superior athleticism and physicality.
Iowa State running back Breece Hall had 20 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown last season. Texas star back Bijan Robinson had 20 carries for 103 yards and a score.
The problem was UL simply didn’t make one-on-one plays in space.
“I’m sure coach Toney will agree,” Napier said. “That’s an area that cost us.”
At first glance, Napier didn’t seem as displeased as he should have been with the special teams. The good news is kicker Kenny Almendares continues to display uncanny consistency, which is probably the most important trend moving forward.
“Kenny really came through today and made a couple of clutch kicks,” Napier said. “There’s no question that Kenny’s really grown up as a player. … Early there, that’s a big deal in my opinion, on the road against a tough team in a great venue in a difficult environment to come through and make that field goal and then to make another one right before the half.”
But there coverage teams made some critical errors and potential was one called back by penalty. Among those mistakes were a missed extra point, the one kickoff return didn’t reach the 25-yard line and an onside kick on the second-half kickoff that went out of bounds, which squashed some momentum the Cajuns had built up.
“There’s no need to hit the panic button here,” Napier said. “They had some good players out there with well-designed concepts, and they made plays when given the opportunity.
“Our players at times can do things better, and certainly we can coach better at the same time.”
The good news is it’s one game and not even a conference game.
“Every part of our organization, we’ll learn from this experience,” Napier said. “We never can waste a failure. Certainly, today we got beat, so we need to live and learn.
“Call it like we see it, tell the truth, have integrity, go over the mistakes that we made — both as players and coaches — and move forward here and try to improve.”