There's been a lot of buzz over the past nine days or so.
It’s one thing to understand how important a game UL’s home showdown against reigning Sun Belt Conference champion Appalachian State is for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ program.
It’s an entirely different task to actually win the game.
That challenge begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2.
Not only did the Mountaineers (4-0, 1-0) win the Sun Belt title last year and their fourth straight bowl game, but Appalachian State also secured the program’s 24th winning season in the past 25 years.
From a pure football perspective, UL’s 7 p.m. home game Wednesday against Appalachian State on ESPN2 is huge for many reasons.
The Cajuns (4-1, 1-0) are striving for their first 10-win season in school history this fall. Appalachian State has claimed double-digit winning seasons 13 times since 1987.
“I have the utmost respect for their program,” UL coach Billy Napier said.
In many ways that admiration only fuels Napier’s fire for his Cajuns to win Wednesday even more.
Certainly, it won’t be easy.
The Mountaineers won both meetings in Boone, North Carolina, last season — 27-17 in regular season and 30-19 in the championship game — but Appalachian State has a new head coach with only four holdover assistant coaches.
“The first thing is you definitely have three different coordinators,” Napier said. “Certainly there is the influence of the past is there. There’s no question about that, and the holdover of coaches that they do have are in position where they certainly affect what’s happening — whether that’s the O-line guy or the safeties coach, the outside backers coach, the receivers-turned-tight end coach.
“But different play-callers. The thing that stands out is the veteran players. They’ve got a really core group of players that have been playing a long time there. They know how to win, and certainly we have a ton of respect for that group of players.”
He might play a completely different position, but in the mind of UL sophomore outside linebacker Kris Moncrief, there’s no minimizing the imp…
At first glance, the Mountaineers are more explosive on offense and also give up more points on defense than in recent years.
So far this season, the Cajuns’ defense has limited some playmaking quarterbacks. It might have its biggest chore with ASU junior quarterback Zac Thomas, who has thrown 802 yards and seven touchdowns and run it for 103 yards and a score.
“This may be the biggest test of all, because I think this guy’s a well-rounded player,” Napier said. “He’s a really accurate passer. He’s been very effective. I think he’s improved as a passer. He’s benefited from the new system, and I think he has really good skill players around him.
“Covering their skill players, tackling their runners, and then when the guy does have to pull it down and does break the pocket, the designed runs, the read runs at quarterback, we’ve got to do a good job and play with discipline. Certainly keep the guy in the pocket and trying to affect him throughout the day will be important.”
On offense, the Cajuns have grown used to running the ball down the throats of opposing defense, to the tune of 314 yards a game.
The Mountaineers have their own rushing threat in junior Darrynton Evans, who has 471 yards and nine touchdowns on 67 carries.
It’s become one of the favorite motivating slogans for UL’s athletic department.
“We know the guy,” Napier said. “We know exactly who he is. There’s no question why he’s having production. They’re feeding him the ball, and he’s a very talented runner that’s got good players around him. Certainly when given opportunities he can make plays. We know exactly what we’re getting into there.”
The Cajuns counter with the three-headed monster of Trey Ragas (56-548, 6 TDs), Elijah Mitchell (67-402, 9 TDs) and Raymond Calais (32-273, 2 TDs).
Everything UL’s offense has done so far this season certainly has caught the attention of new ASU coach Eliah Drinkwitz, especially junior quarterback Levi Lewis.
“First off, offensively, coach Napier’s done an outstanding job,” Drinkwitz said. “You can tell he’s taken his influences from Todd Graham, brought from Arizona State the unbalanced formations, the tempos, the establishing the run out of multiple personnel. Obviously they rush the football really well, but their quarterback is playing at a high level. He throws the ball, and he’s got tremendous speed on the perimeter.
“They’re a complete offense. That’s the biggest thing. There’s not one area that you’re like they’re hiding this. They’re really good at all facets of the game, and he’s got a really good command of calling it.”
But as good as the Cajuns have been offensively, Drinkwitz has been most impressed on film by UL’s defensive front, which ironically was the team’s biggest question mark entering fall camp.
“Defensively, they’re very solid in the trenches,” Drinkwitz said. “I think their D-line is the strength of their team. Obviously they return some people in the back end that allows them more freedom. Any time you’ve been in a system for two years there’s some continuity there, there’s some familiarity. Whether it’s game plan or week-to-week calls that we just don’t have yet. So they’ve got an advantage on us and we’ve got to try to pick that up quicker.”
But while a chess match likely will ensue after the opening kickoff, Drinkwitz doesn’t expect the guessing game to determine the winner.
“It’s not going to come down to out-scheming their opponent,” he said. “It’s going to come down to fundamentals, technique, doing your job like your coaches do it. That’s what we’ve got to do. It’s not going to be like some sort of secret scheme that we can pull out. It’s going to be get down there, play your technique, win in the trenches.”