A slow start on both sides of the ball doomed UL-Lafayette last week in its second straight Sun Belt Conference road loss.
Now, with their West Division fate in their hands, coach Billy Napier said the Ragin’ Cajuns can’t afford that kind of start Saturday when they host Georgia State.
“They’re a team that if they get ahead of you in the turnover margin, they can be dangerous,” Napier said of the Panthers, who come to Cajun Field at 4 p.m. Saturday. “They have some explosive skill players. If you look at the games they’ve played, even the last two weeks, they’re putting up points.”
The Panthers (2-7, 1-4) are out of the hunt in the East Division, where three teams have one or no losses with three weeks remaining.
But in a way, Napier said, that makes Georgia State more dangerous.
“I think they’re a lot better than their record indicates,” he said. “We’re going to have our hands full with their offensive group that’s scoring at a pretty consistent rate. They’ve got a pretty good identity on defense and they run to the ball and tackle well. They’ve presented a number of issues for other teams.”
The Panthers scored more than 33 points per game in their last three outings. But all three were part of a current four-game losing streak in which they’ve surrendered more than 41 points on average.
Ironically, those came after GSU’s best outing of the year, a 46-14 home blowout of West Division leader UL-Monroe.
In their past two home games, the Cajuns totaled 113 points and 1,306 yards of offense in wins over New Mexico State and Arkansas State.
They also scored 42 points the week before in a win at Texas State — and in those four games before Saturday's 26-16 loss at Troy, the Cajuns had averaged more than 29 first-half points.
Last Saturday against Troy, however, UL-Lafayette was limited in the first half to one Kyle Pfau field goal, set up by Raymond Calais’ 54-yard kickoff return. The Cajuns had more offense in the third quarter (110 yards) than the entire first half (105).
“We had some communication issues and some technique issues,” Napier said. “We gave up a couple of sacks within the game. Some of those were at the end of the game when it was a 10-point game with 47 seconds left. But Troy did a good job. They had a good plan. They disrupted the pocket.”
Ferrod Gardner made his fourth start and was in his third different position since the season opener last Saturday, but the junior linebacker looked at home against the Trojans. The Dayton, Ohio, native and Coffeyville Community College transfer finished with a team-leading nine tackles.
Gardner started the season as a backup to middle linebacker Jacques Boudreaux before moving to the weakside linebacker slot. Because of injuries at a couple spots, the 6-foot-2 Gardner shifted to the Jack (field) linebacker in defensive coordinator Ron Roberts’ multiple defense.
“That really shows his ability and his athleticism, to play different positions where we need him,” said Boudreaux, the Cajuns’ leading tackler with 54 in nine games. “He’s a gifted player and he’s helping us a lot right now. I think overall, as he keeps learning that (Jack) position, that’s where he’s really going to make his craft.”
Napier said Monday he expected three pivotal performers who missed Saturday’s loss at Troy — running back Elijah Mitchell, cornerback Eric Garror and linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill — to return this weekend.
Mitchell, the Cajuns’ second-leading rusher with 565 yards and eight scores, suffered a neck injury midweek. Over the previous four games, Mitchell had 630 yards rushing and receiving.
Despite being a true freshman, Garror claimed the starting role at boundary cornerback. He’s the only Cajuns player with two interceptions. McCaskill has 15 tackles in three games this year.
“I’ll know more after practice Wednesday,” Napier said, “but certainly those guys are going to participate all week and we’ll see where they’re at.”
The Cajuns will hold Military Appreciation Day on Saturday, with a patriotic halftime celebration including fireworks and a different uniform combination for the team. Napier said that there will also be a moment of silence between the first and second quarters in honor of the unaccounted-for prisoners or war and those missing in action.
“It’s a special opportunity and a great teaching opportunity and lesson for our players in terms of what those people do for us,” Napier said. “Recognizing those people that do so much for our country and our freedom, that’ll be a regular event here as long as I’m coaching here.”
Napier specifically mentioned former Cajuns offensive lineman Terry Johnson, currently a Navy E-3 Seaman who served on the honor guard that carried the late Arizona Sen. John McCain’s casket into North Phoenix Baptist Church in late August for a memorial service. Johnson played on three New Orleans Bowl winning teams from 2012-14, starting at guard in 2013 and at center in 2014.