There were a few moments early on in UL’s 35-14 win over Liberty where some Ragin’ Cajuns fans were likely beginning to worry about their defense.
In Liberty’s first five possessions, the Flames’ offense had accumulated 11 first downs and 210 yards of offense, and there was still 9:18 left in the second quarter.
But just when that concern reached its highest level after giving up a 66-yard touchdown run to Frankie Hickson right up the middle, UL’s defense played practically perfect the rest of the night.
Liberty’s final seven drives of the night ended badly for the visiting Flames, and UL’s defense held in 10 of its last 11 drives.
“I’m really, really proud of our defense in terms of how they played after the first possession,” UL coach Billy Napier said. “And really except for one mis-fit on a run, we shut those guys out, which I thought was very impressive.”
Defensive coordinator Ron Roberts’ unit limited Liberty’s offense to 2-of-11 on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth down to force five punts and three turnovers on downs.
“I think we just settle down a little bit,” Napier said. “We fitted the runs better and certainly covered better. I think our guys did a tremendous job of making adjustments as the game went. That staff is a little bit of a game-plan staff, so they have game-specific things that they’re going to do. Once we got comfortable with their plan, we made the necessary adjustments.”
After Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert hit on his first two passes, he was harassed throughout the rest of the game. For the second straight game, well-timed blitzes consistently produced quick throws, including a pass for intentional grounding.
“No question,” Napier said of his defense’s successes when blitzing. “We disguise well. On the back end, we’re putting it together better. It all looks the same. And certainly we’ve added some team speed and those guys are doing a good job on their indicator, timing up the pressures. That was one of the things coach Roberts said we’re going to have to do more of that.”
And when the blitzes weren’t dialed up, defensive end Chauncey Manac was supplying his own pressure with two sacks for a total of 20 yards.
“It’s relieving, because the first game I didn’t get any and I was kind of down on myself,” Manac said. “But at the same time, I couldn’t do that without the whole D-line.”
Manac said the vast improvement after the slow start was a matter of being “level-headed and trusting our defensive coordinator and knowing what the game plan is. I don’t think we ever had any fear or doubt that we were going to lose.”
Another big factor in the success of the defense Saturday was how well the secondary tackled in the open field. Liberty completed 22 passes, but only for an average of 5.6 yards per attempt, while UL’s offense got 7.4 yards per attempt on its 16 completions.
“They completed a lot of passes underneath and we took great angles and got them down on the ground,” Napier said. “There were a few mistackles in the first half, but I thought our guys settled down. We work on that. We’ve been studying it and working on it. We have a number of different drills we’ve added to our practice regimen. We do them in offseason programs. We changed up our Wednesday when we’ve added an addition tackling (drill). I think all that work on fundamentals is paying off.”
Also helping the defense is balance. A total of 25 different Cajuns recorded at least a half a tackle in Saturday’s win. Leading the way in tackles were Lorenzo McCaskill and Michael Jacquet with 4.5 tackles. Jacquet actually halted Liberty’s early onslaught with an acrobatic interception to end the Flames’ second drive after getting seven first downs on their first 10 plays from scrimmage.
“I’m just blessed with athletic ability,” Jacquet said to describe his interception. “I guess that’s all I can say.”
Jacquet also had a pass break-up in the end zone that almost resulted in his second interception.
“We just had to settle down, that’s it,” he said “We just had to settle down and play our game. We were letting them dictate the pace of the game. We weren’t talking and communicating like we should.”