The two teams have played 52 games, dating to 1951, and they have played 17 times since they were among the original members when the Sun Belt Conference began football competition in 2001.
But none of those previous games carried the magnitude for UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe as does Saturday’s 2 p.m. meeting at UL-Monroe’s Malone Stadium.
Both teams can win the Sun Belt’s first West Division title and a trip to the inaugural Sun Belt championship game next weekend — the Ragin’ Cajuns lock that up with a win, while the Warhawks need help in the final regular-season weekend. Saturday’s victor is also locked into a bowl game, while the loser is likely on the outside looking in when bowl bids are handed out.
The Cajuns having won eight of the past 10 in the series and the past six meetings in Monroe.
UL-Monroe has never won or shared a Sun Belt title, and despite playing in five bowls in the past seven years, it’s been 13 years since the Cajuns won their only league title (2005).
“We’re right where we need to be relative to accomplishing a goal,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said. “This time of year challenges everything about who you are, it challenges your belief, your ownership, what type of discipline you have, your toughness. Ultimately it’s about our identity as a team right now, and what we’re willing to do to find a way to go get it done.”
The Cajuns (6-5, 4-3) have done that since their early struggles, using an explosive offense to sweep its games so far against West Division rivals. But so have the Warhawks, who won four straight games after a four-game losing streak and did it with a defensive turnaround.
UL-Monroe (6-5, 4-3) has struggled defensively for much of Matt Viator’s three-year coaching stint in Monroe, one that followed an impressive run at McNeese. But in that four-game win streak, the Warhawks held opponents to 17.3 points per game and to an average of 279 yards. They also had 38 tackles for minus yardage and 17 sacks in that stretch.
“No question our defense has come a long way,” Viator said. “Even last week, we hung in there defensively and gave ourselves a chance to win.”
That was in a 31-17 loss at Arkansas State that snapped the win streak and threw the West Division into a three-way tie. It also gave Arkansas State hope for the West title, but the Red Wolves have to hope for a UL-Monroe win to reach that goal, since preseason West favorite Arkansas State lost 47-43 to the Cajuns in late October.
That’s UL-Lafayette’s advantage and the reason the Cajuns control their destiny. A Cajuns win puts them on the road at Appalachian State or at Troy next week in the title game.
“As a player, you always like to think you have a shot,” said Cajuns linebacker Jacques Boudreaux. “Nobody has the mentality that they think they’re a bunch of losers. We thought we could make it this far. Now did it play out the way we wanted it to, no it didn’t, but like coach Napier says, we have the pen in our hand and we can write our own ending.”
Since the start of October, the Cajuns offense has posted some impressive numbers, averaging 38.9 points in those seven games and topping 500 yards four times. UL-Lafayette has had dual 100-yard rushers three times and ranks eighth nationally in third-down conversion with a better than 50-percent success.
UL-Lafayette has three rushers with more ground yardage than any Warhawk, with sophomores Trey Ragas (925 yards, eight TDs) and Elijah Mitchell (805 yards, 12 TDs) and junior Raymond Calais (671 yards, six TDs) all in the national top 100 rushers. Meanwhile, the Cajuns have passed for 2,406 yards and 22 scores and senior Andre Nunez ranks in the FBS top 25 in completion percentage and passing efficiency.
“Offensively they’re physical, and they’re big and the three running backs they have are as good as what we’ve played this year in a tandem, including the two SEC teams we played. I’m really impressed with what they’ve done there.”
That success will test a UL-Monroe defense that’s given up only 100 points in the past five games and is second in the Sun Belt in sacks. But the key to both teams’ success may be on the other side of the ball, where the Warhawks have a three-way attack to throw against an inconsistent Cajuns defense.
Last week, in UL-Lafayette's 48-38 win over South Alabama, the visiting Jaguars had season highs in rushing and total offense.
“We struggled on the perimeter playing off blocks,” Napier said. “We didn’t play the sweep series very well and struggled all night on conversion downs. That’s an area we’ve got to improve this week.”
UL-Monroe junior Caleb Evans has thrown for 2,668 yards and 14 scores while also leading the Warhawks in rushing with 608 yards and 10 more touchdowns. Evans had a career day in last year’s meeting with 472 yards and six touchdowns, five of them part of his career-high 129 yards rushing.
Derrick Gore (583 yards, six TDs) is the other rush threat, but the biggest breakaway threat is fifth-year senior Marcus Green, one of five finalists for the Paul Hornung Award which goes to the nation’s most versatile player. The 5-foot-8 Green has 20 plays of 20 or more yards this season.