NEW ORLEANS — Two series into Saturday’s game, some of the Ragin’ Cajun faithful were having visions of last season’s trip to Starkville, Mississippi, and the 56-10 beatdown handed out by Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs had just driven 74 yards in six easy plays for a 7-0 lead Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and UL quarterback Levi Lewis was picked off by MSU’s Cam Dantzler at the Cajun 35 on the Cajuns’ first offensive play.
But four plays later at the UL 23, cornerback Michael Jacquet blind-sided Bulldog quarterback Tommy Stevens and forced a fumble that teammate Chauncey Manac recovered. Two series later, another MSU fumble set up Elijah Mitchell’s game-tying three-yard scoring run.
The Cajuns eventually fell to the three-touchdown-favored Bulldogs 38-28, but that play made a statement that Jacquet and defensive coordinator Ron Roberts hope will resonate for the rest of the season.
“Coach Roberts preaches every day, attack the ball,” said Jacquet, who finished with five solo tackles along with the sack and forced fumble. “So does Coach (Billy) Napier. All we talk about is attacking the ball and making plays.”
“When he (Jacquet) had that hit and caused the fumble, that kind of settled us down,” said Roberts, whose first-year unit gave up touchdowns on the Bulldogs’ first eight possessions last season on the way to a 607-yard offensive total. “It said that we belong here, let’s go play football. Sometimes it takes that. It takes a sign, somebody to make a play and then settle down and play football.”
That Cajun defense also played under duress. The Bulldogs had 12 of their 13 possessions end in UL territory, the only exception being the fumble recovery that set up Mitchell’s score with 3:17 left in the first quarter. On six of those 12, UL’s defense came up with stops and didn’t allow points.
The total defensive numbers still weren’t what the Cajun defense is seeking, with MSU running back Kylin Hill grinding out 197 yards and quarterback Tommy Stevens competing 20-of-30 passes for 236 yards and two scores. But Napier said the scoreboard wasn’t a true indication.
“You can see that we’re a lot more sound, and fundamentally we’ve made improvement,” the second-year UL coach said of that defense. “We’re going to look back and we’re going to see missed tackles, missed communication in the matchups, we’re going to see personal fouls, we’re going to see opportunities where maybe we could get them off the field.
“But this is a tough group. If there’s anything that’s pretty obvious after watching the game, this is a tough group.”
Senior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, playing in his hometown not far from his alma mater Holy Cross, was part of that defense that found itself down 49-3 to the Bulldogs midway through last year’s third quarter.
“This is not the same team at all, really it’s not,” said Boudreaux, who finished with eight tackles to rank second on the team Saturday. “Last year we didn’t quite know what to expect, it was the first year. There’s no time for that anymore. This is our second year in the system and that’s not the excuse anymore.
“They (MSU) have a good back (Hill) and a good offensive line. Going up against a big SEC team, that’s what they’re built for. That’s their bread and butter and they did that. But there were plays where we were out of gaps and just those little things. We really gotta clean that up.”
The Cajun offense suffered three lost fumbles – matching their team lost-fumble total of the entire 2018 season – but only twice was the defense starting inside its own 40. The first came on the early interception, and the second came on an early fourth-quarter punt return that set up Stevens’ 12-yard touchdown pass to Austin Williams on the next play.
That made it 35-14, but from then on the defense pitched a virtual shutout, forcing a punt that was surrounded by Cajun touchdowns that cut the margin to 35-28 with 2:45 left.
An onside kick resulted in a short field after the final touchdown and Jordan Lawless hit a 37-yard field goal with 1:02 left for a clinching score. Boudreaux said until that point, the Cajun defense and the entire squad still had confidence it could pull off its first-ever win over an SEC team (0-45).
“I don’t think we were ever not confident in ourselves that we could go out and play with those guys,” he said. “Everybody in the locker room knew we were a good team, and we just have to go out and show it.”
A defense that was hampered by big plays throughout the 2018 season didn’t give up a rush of over 20 yards and only two Bulldog pass plays went for more than 19 yards.
“I think we’ve matured quite a bit,” Roberts said. “We made some mistakes and we can play a lot better. Right now our guys realize that we’re in a position that it’s about us. We have to eliminate mistakes when we have opportunities to get off the field. There were a lot of those learning opportunities today. But we got off the mat. We had a little bit of nervousness the first drive, but it’s obvious our mental toughness and our approach to the game is better.”