LAFAYETTE — One crucial play in Saturday’s 37-34 loss to New Mexico State summed up what’s been an insurmountable chemistry issue for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette football team this season.
Senior Jevante Watson, forced to play outside of his comfort zone as a safety because of injuries that have continued to ravage the Cajuns’ secondary, watched helplessly as New Mexico State’s Gregory Hogan hauled in a game-tying touchdown pass with 3:59 to go. Defensive back Savion Brown, who started the play lined up over Hogan, threw his arms up in frustration.
The defense called for Cover-2, which requires the safeties to patrol the deep half of side of the field they’re on. Watson — again, playing a position he’s never played before out of necessity — was nowhere near where he should’ve been.
“It just didn’t work,” coach Mark Hudspeth said about the decision to move Watson to safety. “We were trying to get our best 11 tacklers on the field, but his inexperience at safety showed.
“Not to his fault, he gave a great effort and played awfully hard, we just weren’t successful with that. That’s another example of chemistry.”
Chemistry is the important word of that last sentence, or rather the lack of it. Whether it’s been because of injuries, coaching decisions or simply a matter of bad fits, chemistry has been lacking with the Cajuns this season.
In a somewhat astonishing statistic, the Cajuns have had a different starting defensive lineup for each of their 10 games played this season. The only defenders who have started every game for the Cajuns this season are linebackers Dominique Tovell and Otha Peters, and defensive tackle Taboris Lee. Tovell has played multiple positions.
“We’ve been doing OK even with everybody being injured,” said Peters, one of many players getting his first real playing time in a Cajuns uniform. “But it’s kind of hard picking in and picking out of people. It hasn’t been a good mixture for the whole season.”
The problem has been more pronounced on the offensive side of the ball, where the Cajuns have largely not met the standards set by previous teams under offensive coordinator Jay Johnson.
After going through a miraculous stretch in which they did not have a single offensive lineman miss a game because of injury in Hudspeth’s first four years, the Cajuns have been forced to use five different starting combinations along the offensive line this season.
But the biggest problem has been a manufactured one at the quarterback position, as the Cajuns haven’t been able to find a rhythm all year while flip-flopping between Brooks Haack and Jalen Nixon as the starter.
The strategy employed the past two games, with Haack starting and Nixon coming on as situations dictated, has been effective, but the earlier noncommittal took its toll.
When asked Monday why it took so long for Jamal Robinson to start producing at a high level, Haack went to the “C” word.
“It’s been tough trying to get a bunch of chemistry with people when we’re kind of in and out,” Haack said. “We’ve had kind of a rocky year.”
There were plenty of obstacles standing in the Cajuns way this season. They were replacing a productive and experienced senior class and bringing in an entirely new defensive coaching staff. Hudspeth said the expectations were still high, even if there was a feeling it was going to be a transitional year.
But those expectations have gone by the wayside in part because of plays like Watson’s blown coverage Saturday. Chemistry has been lacking, and it’s cost the Cajuns.
Ten games into the season, Hudspeth acknowledged that it’s too late for his team to develop some of the chemistry they’re currently missing. That’s something, he said, that needs to be a focus over the offseason.
But right now, they must focus on getting the job done while things aren’t meshing the way they should be. Otherwise, they’ll get an earlier opportunity to start working on that chemistry than they’d hoped.
“We’ve got to get better as a team, we’ve got to develop more chemistry, all those things that you’ve got to do in the offseason,” Hudspeth said. “But right now, we’ve got to find a way, more importantly, to win a game this coming Saturday.”