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UL head coach Billy Napier reacts to a call against South Alabama during their 38-10 win over South Alabama on Saturday at Cajun Field.

The UL Ragin’ Cajuns have enjoyed a banner season so far in 2020.

They upset Iowa State on the road in the opener and really haven’t looked back much since then.

The program got ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since World War II.

Then after suffering their first loss of the season, coach Billy Napier’s team was back in the Top 25 heading into Saturday’s game against South Alabama.

But something was missing.

Napier knew it. The fans knew it. The players knew it.

And apparently, AP voters around the country not currently sold on the Cajuns just yet had the notion in their heads as well.

As consistently well as UL has played this season, it just didn’t have the dominant performance on their list of credentials.

Until Saturday, that is.

Perhaps it was the motivation of being able to secure the third straight appearance in the Sun Belt championship game with the win.

“I think that played a big part in it,” running back Trey Ragas said. “This game could have went south quick. We knew if we wanted to win this championship, we’ve got to get this game. This is the only team that could stop us from that goal.”

Perhaps the players were tired of hearing it from the coaches and the fans.

“It started this week in practice,” running back Chris Smith said. “Coach pushed us harder this week and it really helped us out. We got the O-line moving faster. It was all of us just working together. We were all going one-on-ones with the defense. That really helped out a lot. It made us play harder.”

Whatever the reason, the Cajuns started fast and never let up in rolling to the 38-10 win over South Alabama.

For those waiting for that kind of an effort, somehow UL’s 7-1 overall and 5-1 Sun Belt record looks a little better now.

“We’ve been working on it now,” Napier said of the fast start. “We certainly haven’t done it. We did it a little bit against Texas State, but then we proceeded to self-implode a little bit. That was more like it. That was more our standard of football out there today.

“We complemented each other throughout the day. That’s who we’ve got to be. We’ve got to have balance. We’ve got to win at the line of scrimmage. We’ve got to play really well on the edges.”

Quite often, a popular criticism of a team doesn’t always sit well with the coach.

In this case, Napier has been awaiting a performance like UL turned in Saturday all season long.

“Ultimately, we’re just getting started in my opinion,” Napier said. “I’ve been frustrated throughout the whole year with how we’re close at times, but we’ve just kind of had inconsistencies. I thought we took a step forward today in certainly starting fast. Building a lead was a huge part of our plan.”

Like most coaches, though, Napier’s big smile was more about the process than the result. Sure, he’s glad his Cajuns punched their ticket for the Dec. 19 championship game at a site yet undetermined.

But he’s more thrilled that the leaders on his team accepted the challenge.

“I challenge the leadership on our team today to really step up,” Napier said. “The best that we have at each position group … our true Alphas to step up and be at their best and we got that today. What I’m excited is not necessarily winning the West, but the fact that we rose to the challenge. We were ready to play and put it together.”

Even more important is leading that parade was the team’s leader in senior quarterback Levi Lewis.

“I saw a guy that executed the plan,” Napier said. “He was dialed in this week. I thought he had his best week of practice. We really spun the ball around the park this week. Mentally, I thought he was really in tune. He’s a guy who gets the big picture. He knows that how we go forward here, the games get bigger. I thought he really had a good look in his eye in how he prepared.”

Indeed, the Cajuns looked like a complete team Saturday.

They ran the ball and stopped the run.

They passed it well and prevented the Jaguars from having a lot of success in the passing game.

His secondary continues to look special.

And it appears Napier’s found his placekicker in Kenny Almendares to complement the outstanding return potential on punts and kickoffs.

“It’s good to see our team rise to the occasion,” Napier said. “It was a big game – Western Division opportunity to seal it – and we really kind of had some intensity and urgency about us throughout the week. Pregame today, we had a little bit different of an edge about us.

“We’re going to need to do that more going forward.”


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.