For one half, UL’s offense came up empty against the Sun Belt Conference’s worst statistical defense Saturday.
Fortunately for the Ragin’ Cajuns, they’ve been a second-half team all year long.
That offense, which didn’t have a first down in the first quarter Saturday and was blanked in a half for the first time this season, was finally able to take advantage of Arkansas State’s defense to the tune of 332 yards in the second half on the way to a key 27-20 Sun Belt West Division victory.
The Cajuns’ seven second-half possessions resulted in three touchdowns and two field goals, one missed field goal and a drive that ended at the Red Wolves’ 24-yard-line. None of those five scoring drives took more than six plays.
“They (the Red Wolves) played a completely different structure than we expected in the first half,” said coach Billy Napier, who is 10-0 against Sun Belt West Division rivals in his third season. “They pressured a little bit more and we saw more man coverage than we’ve seen. That last possession of the (first) half we were spread out in three wides and we were getting a little more what we practiced against and what we expected.”
That drive just before halftime covered 60 yards in 12 plays but ended up in a final first-half frustration when wide receiver Dontae Fleming was tackled on a reverse for a 5-yard loss on fourth down at the A-State 1. Before that drive, with the exception of one 28-yard pass from Levi Lewis to Peter LeBlanc on the first play of the second quarter, UL had 13 total yards and no first downs.
The Cajuns finished with 440 offensive yards but were only 4-of-17 on third- and fourth-down situations, against a Red Wolves team was allowing an average of more than 488 yards per game and 47 points in SBC play.
“That’s the first truly complete defensive game we’ve played since Kansas State,” said A-State coach Blake Anderson, referring to a 35-31 win over the Wildcats in the second week of the season. “We’ve played in spurts and our guys were losing confidence, but now you start to see them grow in confidence."
Slow starts haven’t been unusual for the Cajuns (6-1, 4-1), who have had only three scoring drives in the first quarter of their seven outings. Before last week’s 44-34 win at Texas State, UL’s only first-quarter score this year came on its opening drive against Coastal Carolina.
On Saturday, though, that sluggish start dragged until UL’s first possession after halftime, when Lewis hit LeBlanc again for 29 yards and then scrambled for a 33-yard touchdown for a 7-6 lead.
“Today we were sleep-walking out there early,” Napier said. “We didn’t have them in the right frame of mind and we had to break them up. But our staff did a good job of doing just that. We got them going.
“I’d like to play better first-half offense, for sure, but other than that it was an impressive win. If anything, we’re an entertaining team to watch. We make it close.”
Arkansas State (3-5, 1-4) helped the Cajuns out with its own offensive issues in the first half. The Red Wolves drove inside the UL 20 three times in the first 25 minutes but managed only two Blake Grupe field goals for a 6-0 halftime lead.
“The kids handled that pretty well,” Anderson said. “They kept playing, but you know in a game like this that’s going to hurt you. Their quarterback (Lewis) got loose when we almost had a sack, but you know they’re going to do that eventually. They’ve been a team that’s scored points in the second half in a lot of games this year, so when you get down there you can’t settle for field goals. We’re a lot more capable offensively but we missed opportunities early.”
Safety Percy Butler, who had an interception on a potential tying 2-point conversion early in the final quarter that kept UL in front 14-12, said his defensive teammates knew the offense would get going.
“We had their back every drive when we got on the field,” Butler said of the red-zone stops. “This week everybody sucked it up and we played like our backs were against the wall. We knew we had to force field goals and incompletions and we were keeping it tight for the offense.”