Louisiana-Lafayette’s much-maligned defense finally had the chance to bask in a victory it helped create Saturday evening.
The Ragin’ Cajuns defense limited Idaho to three field goals over the final 3½ quarters, allowed over 38 yards on a Vandals drive only once and got the final stop it needed in the last two minutes. That, combined with the offense scoring 21 points in a 19-minute stretch, made for a much more enjoyable 2,400-mile ride home following the Cajuns’ 21-16 Sun Belt Conference victory.
“I can’t say enough about that defense,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said not long after UL-Lafayette snapped a three-game losing streak and evened up its Sun Belt record (1-1). “To hold that team to one touchdown, against one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, that was a great effort on their part.
“They came away with some big, big stops when we put them in bad positions.”
The host Vandals had to drive only 38 yards on their first possession for what became their only touchdown. The field goal drives covered 28, 53 and 18 yards. Other than that, UL-Lafayette’s defense held Idaho out of Cajun territory on all but a final drive.
That last drive came just after Cajuns kicker Stevie Artigue hooked a 48-yard field goal attempt that would have given UL-Lafayette an eight-point lead with 4:54 left. That put the ball back in the hands of standout Vandals quarterback Matt Linehan, who ranks fourth on the Sun Belt’s career passing list with more than half his senior year remaining.
Linehan hit a pair of passes to move the ball to the Cajuns 37, but a third-down incompletion and a fourth-down quarterback hurry by defensive end Joe Dillon forced a throwaway with 1:47 left.
“We had a statement to make,” said senior linebacker T. J. Posey, who finished with 11 tackles and six solos. “We had two weeks to prepare for Idaho, and everybody bought in these two weeks. We came out with a different attitude, a little bit of swagger.”
Showing swagger might have been tough for a unit that ranked last nationally in scoring defense and two from the bottom in total defense. But in Saturday’s game at the Kibbie Dome, a warehouse-like building that reverberates sound and made the 14,198 on hand seem twice as loud, that unit held Idaho to 13 first downs, five-of-17 on third-down conversionss and 279 total yards. Linehan was a pedestrian 13-of-28 for 149 yards and was sacked three times.
“This team’s worked hard, and we hadn’t shown it in some areas early, in our first four games,” Hudspeth said. “Tonight, we put it together and played a solid game against a quality opponent in a tough atmosphere.”
The Cajuns may have also solved a quarterback dilemma that reared its head in the past two games. Jordan Davis had been ineffective since a leg injury at Texas A&M, and Andre Nunez had come off the bench after three series two weeks ago in the 56-50 double-overtime loss to UL-Monroe.
Nunez did the same Saturday, entering the game after UL-Lafayette went three-and-out and had a net of minus-4 yards in its first two series. The junior transfer promptly led the Cajuns to back-to-back scores on drives of 52 and 83 yards, and 2:10 into the second half he hit Ja’Marcus Bradley with a 45-yard over-the-top touchdown pass to provide a 21-10 lead.
“I got my shot,” said Nunez, who outperformed Linehan with an 18-of-24, 213-yard passing performance despite being sacked six times by Idaho’s pressure defense. “They come with a lot of blitzes and pressures and gave us some problems, but our guys were able to get open and I was able to extend plays a couple of times.”
That effort was enough for Hudspeth to make the change official after the game and going into a short week before Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. home contest against struggling Texas State.
“Moving forward, it’s Andre’s job,” he said. “We still have to look at the tape, but there’s no other way to say it. The way he moved our team, he’s going to start against Texas State on Thursday.”
Nunez’ final four duties Saturday were to hand the ball to tailback Trey Ragas in that final 1:47, and the true freshman from New Orleans-Shaw once again delivered with 30 yards and two key first downs. One came on a scrum carry when he carried Vandals defenders past the chains, and Ragas made one tackler miss in a game-locking 13-yard third-down burst two plays later.
“We call him bull because that’s what he does,” Nunez said of Ragas, who finished with a game-high 78 yards. “He’s been doing that since the first game. He got that first down when we needed it.”