If familiarity with the opposing program means anything, UL-Lafayette’s football staff has a built-in advantage Saturday when the Ragin’ Cajuns face off with UL-Monroe for the Sun Belt Conference West Division title.
One year ago, Cajuns assistant coaches Tim Leger and Matt Powledge were on ULM coach Matt Viator’s staff. One year earlier, UL-Lafayette offensive coordinator Rob Sale was on Viator’s first Warhawk staff in 2016 as offensive line coach.
Add in Cajuns defensive coordinator Ron Roberts’ years of squaring off with Viator when the two were head coaches at Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese … and Cajuns safeties coach Patrick Toney coaching against McNeese while at SLU, Northwestern State and Sam Houston State … and Cajuns offensive line coach D. J. Looney’s two years at Central Arkansas when UCA and the Cowboys battled for Southland Conference titles … and you’d be hard pressed to find a staff anywhere outside of Monroe that’s more familiar with ULM.
Cajuns coach Billy Napier didn’t hire those guys for that familiarity, but with the teams meeting at 2 p.m. Saturday in a season finale full of intrigue for both, he’s going to use whatever advantage he can find.
“Like most situations, they’re a little more familiar with the personnel,” Napier said. “Schematically, both coach Powledge and coach Leger were on offense, so they’re going to be more familiar with what they’re doing there. And Rob worked with Coach V a lot in the past.
“There’s all kinds of relationships that carry over here, a lot of interchangeable parts.”
Sale spent two stints with Viator, serving as McNeese’s offensive line coach from 2012-14 and as co-offensive coordinator in that final year after five years on Alabama’s strength and conditioning staff. After a year at Georgia as offensive line coach, Sale joined Viator at ULM when the long-time McNeese mentor took the Monroe job prior to the 2016 season.
The winner of Saturday’s game earns the West Division’s spot in the inaugural Sun Belt Conference championship game the following Saturday, Dec. 1. The East Division winner — either Troy or Appalachian State — will host the 11 a.m. game.
Saturday’s winner also locks up a bowl invitation. The title-game winner is locked into the Dec. 15 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, while the loser of the championship game is likely headed to the Dec. 22 Dollar General Bowl in Mobile but could wind up in any of the Sun Belt’s four other bowl tie-ins.
Napier said that uncertainty, if his team is fortunate enough to win Saturday, makes preparations a challenge.
“You just have plan A and plan B, and sometimes it’s even plan C,” he said. “The thing that it affects right now is recruiting, because the championship week is a contact week. Not knowing what bowl you may end up in affects your calendar. We’ve got several contingency plans in place for recruiting.”
The Cajuns have had few serious injuries since opening week, and because of that the UL-Lafayette lineup hasn’t undergone many changes. The five offensive linemen — center Cole Prudhomme, guards Ken Marks and Kevin Dotson and tackles Robert Hunt and Rico Robinson — should all start their 12th straight game Saturday, as will quarterback Andre Nunez and wide receiver JaMarcus Bradley. Wide out Ryheem Malone has made 10 starts and tight end Matt Barnes and running back Trey Ragas both figure to make their 10th start.
Defensively, every anticipated Saturday starter has started more than half of the Cajuns’ first 11 games this year including four — end Bennie Higgins, linebacker Jacques Boudreaux and defensive backs Corey Turner and Deuce Wallace – who have started every game.
Napier credited the strength and conditioning staff for much of that injury avoidance.
“That’s been huge and they’ve done a great job,” he said. “Our long-term plan, the way we put our offseason program together, has worked. We tweaked some things, we researched it and modified it and I think it’s worked. I’m pleased with the injury rate … we’ve had our bumps and bruises but most of those are contact-related and that’s part of the game.”
The Cajuns should get three prominent defenders back for the regular-season finale. Starting cornerback Eric Garror (knee) and defensive end Garrald McDowell (leg bruise) both missed UL-Lafayette’s past two games. Ferrod Gardner, a part of the rotating linebacker corps, also missed last week’s 48-38 win over South Alabama with an undisclosed injury but is expected to play.
Still sidelined is nickel back Terik Miller, who missed the USA game with a knee injury.
With the holiday weekend, UL-Lafayette did some adjustment to its workout and meeting schedule prior to Saturday’s road game. Napier said that Thursday’s regular schedule was moved up three hours to allow players who live close enough to spend Thanksgiving afternoon and evening with families.
Players living further away had Thanksgiving dinner with Napier or with their position coaches, and a team Thanksgiving meal is set Friday prior to meetings.
“We told them just be back on time for Friday before we meet,” Napier said.