The invitations are nearly ready to be sent, ones that will welcome Sun Belt Conference fans to a party next weekend that will determine the West Division champion and a berth in the league’s first championship game.
But before those invites go out, UL-Lafayette’s football team still has to take care of final arrangements Saturday, when South Alabama provides the opposition for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ home finale.
The Cajuns (5-5, 3-3) control their own destiny in the West Division race with two games remaining, and a Nov. 24 matchup at West Division leader UL-Monroe in the final regular-season weekend looms large. If UL-Lafayette wraps up a 5-1 season at Cajun Field on Saturday against the struggling Jaguars (2-8, 1-5), the Cajuns will hold all the cards in a three-team West race with ULM and Arkansas State.
Or in the parlance Cajuns coach Billy Napier has handed down to his team, they’ll hold the pen.
“It’s a good motto and slogan to use,” said junior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, one of the leaders of an improved defense over the final half of the season. “When you think about it, it’s the truth. We hold the pen and we can write our own script.”
It was an unlikely story at the end of September, when the Cajuns were 1-3 and had lost to Mississippi State and Alabama by a combined 112-24 score. In between, a demoralizing 30-28 home loss to underdog Coastal Carolina began the Sun Belt season on a crushing note.
Two wins followed, but Napier said it was the team’s 27-17 road loss at Appalachian State and a following 47-43 upset win at home over Arkansas State that changed mindsets. One year earlier, the Cajuns were embarrassed by both the Red Wolves (47-3) at midseason and by the Mountaineers (63-14) in the season finale — one day before Mark Hudspeth was removed as head coach.
“The last time against those teams, it wasn’t a game,” Napier said. “It was a pretty quick rout and an easy rout. At App State when we were able to make it a football game, to hang in and play with some of the better teams, and then to be able to beat Arkansas State in our division, we came out of that with a feeling that all the work we’ve been doing maybe has paid off.
“Since we won against Arkansas State, we have a little different look in our eye and understand that we can be a factor in the West. We belong with those teams, and let’s go see how much better we can get. If we’re in contention at the end, let’s make the most of our opportunity.”
The opportunity is there, thanks to a season in which most of the Sun Belt’s better records lie in the East Division (Troy at 6-0, Appalachian State at 5-1 and Georgia Southern at 4-2). If the Cajuns beat the Jaguars and A-State wins at home over ULM on Saturday, the three teams will be tied at 4-3 entering the final weekend.
That opportunity all but vanishes, though, if the Cajuns stumble against 17-point underdog USA in Saturday’s 4 p.m. ESPN3 game.
“We’re not looking ahead,” said defensive end Zi’Yon Hill, a dominant force with nine solo tackles and a sack in last Saturday’s 36-22 win over Georgia State. “We’re playing it week to week and focusing on the matchup this week.”
“I don’t think we’re to that point that we can afford to look forward,” Napier said. “Every week is just as exciting to these guys right now. Last week, this week, next week, no matter who we’re playing or where we’re at, they understand what’s at stake.”
The Jaguars won their league opener 41-31 over Texas State but have since lost six of seven games, with the only win coming over Southwestern Athletic Conference member Alabama State. USA has allowed 38 points in each of its past three games and has lost all three by at least three touchdowns while struggling to find offensive consistency, most notably in a 38-10 homecoming loss to ULM last Saturday.
“The second half we couldn’t get stops and couldn’t generate enough offense to give ourselves a chance,” said first-year coach Steve Campbell, whose past three conference games have come against teams with a combined 22-8 league record. “We’ve played all of those good teams, and we’ve played a lot of young guys lately, and hopefully that will start paying off for us this week.”
The Jaguars have had a revolving door at quarterback with senior Evan Orth missing last week with a shoulder injury and still a question mark. Fellow senior Cole Garvin, in his first action since the second game of the year, and athletic 6-foot-5 freshman Cephus Johnson split time against ULM. Johnson completed only one pass against the Warhawks, a 34-yard touchdown, and ran for 23 yards and is expected to start Saturday.
“They’re conceptually the same regardless of the quarterback,” Napier said. “(Johnson) is a better runner so you maybe treat him slightly different. But they mostly stick with their system and that’s what we’ve prepared for.”
Aptly-named senior linebacker Bull Barge has double-figure tackles in each of the past three games, but USA is last in the Sun Belt in scoring defense (38.9 points per game) and is allowing 459 yards per game. That’s not good news against an offense averaging 610 yards and almost 50 points in its past three home games.
Running backs Raymond Calais and Elijah Mitchell combined for 322 yards and four scores against GSU, and UL-Lafayette also should have rushing leader Trey Ragas (872 yards, eight TDs) back after missing last week with a lower leg injury.
Senior quarterback Andre Nunez has thrown for 1,750 yards and 14 scores and didn’t have to throw much against Georgia State (14-19-0, 141 yards). But his 14 completions went to 10 different receivers.
“They’re very explosive,” Campbell said. “They’ve got good running backs, and their offensive line is one of the better ones in the league. They held Georgia State to 22 and Troy to 26 the last couple of weeks, so they’re a defense that’s getting better. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”