Two major goals for the 2020 season could be colliding for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns at 1 p.m. Saturday when coach Billy Napier’s team takes on South Alabama at Cajun Field.
First, there’s the much-discussed ongoing search to finally play the complete game.
More importantly, a win Saturday would earn the No. 25-ranked Cajuns a third straight trip to the Sun Belt Conference championship game, scheduled to be played on the home field of the No. 1 overall seed on Dec. 19.
The Cajuns are 6-1 overall and 4-1 in Sun Belt play. Coming to town is a Jaguars team that’s 3-4, 2-2, so a UL win would essentially give the Cajuns a 2.5-game lead with only two games left with the tiebreaker over South Alabama.
“We turned the page,” Napier said of the Cajuns’ 27-20 homecoming win over Arkansas State this past Saturday. “We did it pretty quickly here. It’s that time of the year. It’s crunch time and this is going to be a big one against South Alabama.”
Since UL’s latest win, the Cajuns earned a return trip to the AP Top 25 poll at No. 25.
Running back Chris Smith said that’s not the priority for the Cajuns.
“We’re really over it,” he said of the novelty of being ranked. “We said we played better without being ranked. So when you’re ranked, it’s just a target on our name. We're already saying, ‘It’s hunting season,’ so we’re out to get everybody. But now, everybody’s out to get us because we’re ranked again.
“We just really put that past us, and we’re just playing like we’ve still got something to prove. We still don’t have a Sun Belt championship here and that’s what we’re trying to get.”
To capture that Sun Belt crown, first the Cajuns have to qualify. In order to do so, it may eventually require better execution in the first half.
UL has only led at the half in one game this season, trailed in four and were tied in the other two – including being down 6-0 to the Red Wolves this past Saturday.
“We want to try to stop doing that,” Napier said. “I told the offense yesterday, “Hey, how bout we have two 340-pound halves at some point this year?’ We’re still getting there.”
Smith said all the close calls this season definitely aren’t by design.
“I’m not really so sure we’re enjoying it,” he said. “We know we can play better ball. So with these close calls, we’ve got to pick our game up in the first half. We’ve got to execute better, and we’ll be on top of our game.
“We produced over 300 yards in the second half. If we do that in the first half, there’s no way any team can keep up with us.”
While Smith said a lack of execution by the players is the reason for the first-half woes, succeeding in the second half each week isn’t a secret either.
“It started way back in the summer,” Smith said. “We didn’t really get to do much, but we knew conditioning-wise we had to push ourselves and coach is going to push us to be our best. So we had an overtime period and we’re going hard. We’re getting everybody right, everybody in condition. So when it gets to game time, other teams aren’t physically and mentally prepared as we are.
“We’ve got to give props to the coaches and to our strength and conditioning staff.”
And truthfully, Napier doesn’t have many easy memories from his first two battles with South Alabama.
The Jaguars rushed for 351 yards last week and outgained the Cajuns overall 467-391, only for UL to prevail 37-27.
Two years ago, the Jags gave UL plenty of headaches before the Cajuns won 48-38.
“They’ve been a handful the first two years we’ve been here and certainly I don’t see this Saturday being any different," Napier said. "I don’t care what their record is, when we get together to play these guys, they’re a tough matchup. This is going to be a big one. They’re certainly still in contention on the Western division side.”
The Jaguars limited league-leading Coastal Carolina to its lowest point total of the season in a 23-6 loss to the Chanticleers.
“Regardless of what’s happened in the past, we’re sitting here where we want to be,” Napier said. “We’re 6-1 and we’ve got an opportunity to win the West and get in a position to get in the championship game. But we’re going to need to be at our best against a really good and talented South Alabama team this week.”