UL-Lafayette coach Billy Napier hasn’t had many chances to heap praise on his defensive unit this season, so he took full advantage Monday.

The Ragin’ Cajuns defense stepped up early and late in Saturday’s 36-22 win over Georgia State, a victory that kept the Cajuns (5-5, 3-3) in control of their own destiny in the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division race, and Napier said that win wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for that performance.

“Our defense and special teams carried the load early with the first three possessions when we had to punt,” he said. “They kept us in the game early. And then at critical times in the second half they made stops, created a takeaway. We’ve got a bunch of new faces over there that started the year with zero experience, and those guys have continued to get better.”

The Cajuns offense — the Sun Belt’s second-most productive and easily the most balanced — had one first down on its first three possessions on Saturday. However, the defense posted three three-and-outs without a first down and allowed only 11 yards on those nine plays, and one play after the Panthers’ third punt, Raymond Calais broke a school-record for a 92-yard run to give UL-Lafayette a lead it never relinquished.

The punting of Rhys Byrns forced GSU to start at its own 1 and 3 on two of those possessions. The Panthers’ third possession started at their own 32, and that was the visitors’ best starting position for the game. Conversely, the Cajuns churned out 217 yards on their next four possessions, on the way to a 525-yard offensive night that included 355 yards rushing on only 38 carries.

“Once we kind of settled in,” Napier said, “I thought we were able to be really effective on offense, particularly rushing the ball and using the play-action pass. And really there was no panic early … the first time I’ve really felt like our team is starting to understand what it takes to win. We really showed poise and showed we’re developing some confidence and we were able to pull away in the fourth (quarter).”

That late pull-away was also a product of the Cajuns’ defense. After Georgia State marched for a touchdown late in the third quarter to cut the difference to 16-14, that unit forced a three-and-out deep in Panther territory and Michael Jacquet had his first career interception on back-to-back possessions. UL-Lafayette scored both before and after each of those to take a 36-14 advantage midway through the final period.

“If the offense struggles, we have their back,” said junior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, who shared tackling honors with defensive end Zi’Yon Hill with nine. “If the defense struggles, the offense has our back. Guys like (linemen) Zi’Yon Hill, LaDarrius Kidd and Bennie Higgins were winning their one-on-one matches in the trenches. Any time the linebackers don’t have to fight off offensive linemen, it makes it easier for us to flow over the top.”

That unit has been much maligned this season, and the Cajun defenders will still go into Saturday’s important home finale against South Alabama ranked eighth in the 10-team Sun Belt in total, scoring and rushing defense. But they are ranked higher in each category in conference games.

“Players have made fundamental improvement, we’ve eliminated the mental errors and the loafs and the technique issues,” Napier said of the defensive unit. “We’ve gotten solid play from a lot of veteran players who were here last year and have started playing at a high level for us.”

Of course, it helps a defense when the offense racks up a season-high 355 rushing yards even with the limited participation of team rush leader Trey Ragas with a lower leg injury. The Cajuns had two 100-yard rushers for the third time with year — only Mississippi State nationally has that many — with Calais going for a career-high 186 yards and three scores and Elijah Mitchell coming back from missing the previous week’s game at Troy with 136 yards and a score.

The two of them combined for six running plays that totaled 225 yards including Calais’ first-quarter burst that snapped a 48-year-old school record, and they’ll now face a team that’s last in the Sun Belt in scoring defense (38.9) and gave up 551 yards in a 38-10 home loss to West Division leader UL-Monroe last Saturday. The Jaguars (2-8, 1-5) have allowed more than 500 yards in two straight games, but Napier said USA still has defensive potential.

“They have several players that are disruptive,” he said, “especially on defense. Their front can be a problem, the inside linebacker (Bull Barge) was all-conference last year and several cover guys have made plays throughout the season. They’re better than their record indicates, and we still have deficiencies. One possession I thought we were sleep-walking a little bit when they went down and scored, so we still have areas where we can make improvement.”