For two programs that have never met on the football field, the UL Ragin’ Cajuns and the Iowa State Cyclones have a few things in common.
UL coach Billy Napier just turned 41 in July, played football at 1-AA Furman and just led the Cajuns to their first 11-win season in school history.
Iowa State coach Matt Campbell turns 41 in November, played at Division III Mount Union and just took the Cyclones to three straight bowls for the first time in school history.
Both coaches recruited the other team’s record-breaking quarterbacks.
The matchup no one knew existed five weeks ago in a season many prematurely gave up on months ago is apparently going to happen in a place UL’…
Both programs needed games after the coronavirus depleted non-conference schedules across the country.
So it should be a fascinating showdown when the Cajuns take on the No. 23-ranked Cyclones at 11 a.m. Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa.
“A lot of the things they believe in as a program, we believe in,” Napier said. “I think Matt Campbell is a superstar and a guy that’s very accomplished. He’s not only a good coach, but a good man and does things the right way.
“So tons of respect and certainly excited to go compete in their venue.”
Napier is also quite familiar with Iowa State’s All-American candidate quarterback Brock Purdy, who threw for 3,982 yards and 27 touchdowns while rushing for eight more last season.
“I think Brock’s not only a heck of a quarterback, but a great leader and a young man I’ve got a ton of respect for,” Napier said. “I had an opportunity to get to know Brock when I was at Arizona State. I’ve always admired his game.
“It’s no surprise to me that he continues to be a very productive player. He not only can throw the ball and makes really good decisions and leads their team, but he’s also a great athlete. He can extend plays. He can makes plays in the scramble and he’s a good runner. He’s a good athlete. You’ve got to plan for his mobility as much as his arm.”
Percy Butler’s athletic ability, speed and aggressiveness have never been questioned since joining UL’s program two years ago.
Of course, such feelings go both ways. Campbell recruited UL quarterback Levi Lewis out of Scotlandville and has also admired his progress from afar.
“So much credit to the quarterback position, Levi Lewis is as talented a quarterback that we've seen in terms of what he has the ability to do,” Campbell said. “We get to play great quarterbacks in this conference all the time and he's certainly as talented as the young men we face week in and week out in the Big 12."
Another factor in this matchup is Iowa State’s productive tight end position, led by 6-foot-6, 257-pound Charlie Kolar, who had 51 receptions for 697 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
“These guys are some of the better tight ends in the entire country,” Napier said. “They do a good job of creating matchups. It’s the size, length and ball skills — the combination of those things. They force you to match up with these guys.”
In addition to the physical task there, Iowa State presents mental challenge as well.
“The issue is the number of variables that they can present in one personnel grouping,” Napier said. “Typically you play a 12 personnel team (1 back, 2 TEs) and you get 12 personnel types of formations and motions, but this is a team that can create a lot of variables within one grouping. That’s certainly a challenge for the defense to have to adjust out each and every call we have in the plan.”
Until Tyrell Fenroy came around in 2005, no Ragin’ Cajuns running back had ever rushed for 1,000 yards in a season.
The Cajuns answer with one of the best rushing attacks around, led by the senior duo of Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas.
"I think in general this is one of the better offenses in the country this year,” Campbell said. “When you have a senior quarterback as talented as (Lewis) is and then you've got playmakers around them, veterans on the offensive line, veterans at tailback.
“You're talking about an outstanding football team coming in here. It doesn't really matter what conference or what the situation is, I think when you look at the talent in general, this is a really talented football team.”
UL sophomore guard O’Cyrus Torrence put an emphasis on the running game in this matchup.
“We’ve got to control the tempo,” he said. “Their defense isn’t what we’re used to. They run a weird little structure (3-3-5), so we’ve got to know our assignments and know where everybody’s going to be, so we can execute.
“Once we get it going, I feel like we’re going to be able to make something happen. They have a nice defensive set-up, but I feel like our offensive plan is going to work good against them.”
It’s not like Patrick Toney is a new face to the UL Ragin’ Cajuns’ defensive unit.
Iowa State’s top rushing threat in sophomore Reece Hall isn’t as accomplished yet as UL’s backs, but he came on late last season to rush for 897 yards and nine scores.
“Very talented,” Napier said of Hall. “Not only is he a bigger, physical kid, but can create the big play. I think he’s a really good pass catcher. He’s a guy they can throw the ball to and create issues from a free-release standpoint, screen standpoint. Good back and certainly he’ll be a lot better in year two.
“I think he was very impressive. We certainly have a lot of respect for the caliber of player he is.”
The matchup will also be unique in a different way with no fans in the stands. UL’s players, however, aren’t worried about creating their own enthusiasm for this matchup.
“With those guys in our locker room, I don’t think it’s going to be any problem,” junior running back T.J. Wisham said. “I’ve always said that our locker room is special. Our locker room is different. We might not need thousands of fans. We would definitely love to have them, but even at practice, we have juice and we get going. If there's no fans, just expect more activity on the sideline.”