Louisiana Lafayette Iowa St Football

UL cornerback Eric Garror, center, celebrates with teammates after returning a punt 83 yards for a touchdown during the Cajuns' 31-14 win over Iowa State.

Sure, there were big plays that played a huge role in UL’s road upset of No. 23 Iowa State.

And, yes, there were a few key injured starters that didn’t play in the game, like Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar and Cajuns defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill.

But if you listen to the Ragin’ Cajuns, so much of what took place at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa on Saturday was just according to plan.

In fact, sophomore running Chris Smith claimed he’s been dreaming about it since he was 7 years old growing up in Louisville, Mississippi.

As the story goes, Smith would play the NCAA Football video game. He’d be the Group of Five program playing a schedule filled with Top 25 opponents, and he’d win.

“For us to come out and beat them, it shows them that we’re here,” Smith said. “We’re ready to play. This team is special. I love everything about it. The coaches, the support staff and all the players.

“They’re here to compete. I think this Group of Five team — we’re going to be one of the top teams in the country.”

On Sunday, the Cajuns were ranked No. 19 in the AP poll and No. 21 in the coaches poll — the first time since the 1940s to end the longest drought nationally.

In the mind of UL coach Billy Napier, the 83-yard punt return by Eric Garror and the 95-yard kickoff return by Smith were definitely by design.

“That’s (special-teams coach Robby) Discher’s reputation,” Napier said. “He is a special-teams guy. He completely comprehends and understands what’s happening out there. He’s done a great job leading those guys. It’s part of our culture to really good on special teams.

“I think it’s the first place you start when you talk about putting a football team together, because that’s where you play with effort, physicality, you combine your offensive and defensive players and a lot of your walk-ons and second-tier players have roles on those teams. It’s great to see.”

The other aspect of the win that followed Napier’s script perfectly was the turnover battle.

“We played together — all three phases contributed,” he said. “I think the first way you win is you don’t beat yourself.

“We took care of the ball. We didn’t turn it over. We talk about attacking the ball and owning the ball. That’s part of our formula. We did that today.”

Of course, not everything went according to plan. Life isn’t perfect.

Typically, UL’s ground game averages more than 3.4 yards per carry. Until the final drive of the game, Iowa State’s defense stifled the Cajuns’ rushing attack, which finished with 118 yards.

UL's offense only got off 20 plays in the first half. The 56 plays were the lowest total since the Cure Bowl two seasons ago.

“Well, they’ve got some good players in that front seven,” Napier explained. “They’ve got a lot of length in the front seven — big, heavy backers. They do a good job of getting the safety to the party, you know. That guy does a great job of kind of playing off the front seven and making it hard to block the perimeter support.”

What was troubling is Iowa State was able to cover with eight and still halt UL’s running game.

“This is the creator of that 3-3-5,” Napier said. “They fully comprehend and understand what they’re doing. They played us a little different than we expected in the first half, so I think it was critical. We made some adjustments.”

So no, not every aspect of the box score was pretty. The Cajuns don’t expect to put up fewer than 300 total yards in another game this season, and they hope never to miss two more chip-shot field goals in a game.

“We made a lot of mistakes today,” Napier said. “This is just part of the journey. Nobody’s going to care, if you go lose a couple over the next couple of weeks, what happened today.

“We got a lot of work to do. The scary thing is this team can get better. A lot of young players contributed today. We’ve got lots of areas on our team where we can continue to get better.”

But perhaps the biggest tell-tale sign of all that the Cajuns expected to win Saturday was there was no real postgame celebration on the field.

When the final horn sounded, UL’s players simply walked across the field and shook hands with the Cyclones.

“All because we expect that,” quarterback Levi Lewis said. "The type of work we put in, the hours. All of us pretty much say our practices are pretty much harder than the games. Going into it, we pretty much know we’re going to win. It’s all about who’s going to win the turnover battle, how our offense is going to take care of the ball and the defense getting takeaways.

“Not too much celebration, because we know the type of work we put in.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.