UL-Lafayette coach Billy Napier saw a lot of things on film that his Ragin’ Cajuns squad could have done better last Saturday, and those issues came in virtually every area.
But the first-year coach credited his team for putting themselves in a role that few expected when the 2018 season began — one win away from playing in the inaugural Sun Belt Conference championship game.
“We’ve positioned ourselves, we are in contention,” Napier said Monday following the Cajuns’ 48-38 Saturday win over South Alabama in the home finale. “No matter what’s happened in the past, we’re right where we need to be relative to accomplishing a goal, which is to win the West Division.”
That will happen if the Cajuns (6-5, 4-3) win at UL-Monroe Saturday. If UL-Lafayette wins for the ninth time in the past 11 meetings in the Sun Belt’s in-state rivalry, the Cajuns will win the West title regardless of what happens in any other game, and will travel to take on either Troy or Appalachian State in next week’s title game.
It’s a different situation for the host Warhawks (6-5, 4-3), who need both a Saturday win and a loss by Arkansas State at Texas State to qualify for the Dec. 1 championship.
“That’s huge,” said junior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux of the Cajuns being in control of what happens in the final regular-season weekend. “It’s our destiny. It depends on what we do, it doesn’t depend on what other teams do. If we win or if we lose, it all depends on us.”
Napier did say he’d like a more solid performance from his team than he saw at times against the 17-point underdog Jaguars. UL led 10-0 and 24-10 in the first and second halves before USA fought back to tie the game both times, and the Cajuns had to use 17 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes of the third quarter to build their eventual margin.
“We have issues we need to fix,” Napier said. “We did have a few uncharacteristic penalties which were undisciplined choices by the players. Offensively, we stalled out on a drive because of a false start and we made some decisions at quarterback that led to a couple of stalls in the red zone, and we had a turnover that could have been costly.
“Defensively, we struggled on the perimeter playing blocks, we didn’t play the sweep series very well on the perimeter, and we struggled throughout the night on conversion downs. That’s an area we’ve got to improve. Game changers (special teams), I wish we executed the hands situation a little bit better, and our returner communication has to improve.”
The Jaguars entered the game last in the Sun Belt in scoring and rushing, before going for a season-high 223 rush yards, 477 offensive yards and their most points against an FBS team since mid-September. ULM enters the weekend with much better offensive numbers, but Napier said even with his team not playing at its best, he remains convinced that USA is better than its current 2-9 mark.
“They have a talented team in my opinion,” he said. “They have a number of players that are big, fast, strong, explosive. They’ve played a difficult schedule, and they’re in their first year as a staff. They did a good job in the run game, their plan was nothing to lose, try to get it to third and short and fourth and short and go for it on fourth down, and they executed that.”
Napier said his squad must do better than giving up 16 of 24 conversions on those conversion downs, including a 5-of-5 fourth-down performance by the Jaguars.
“I think they had 18 plays of 10 or more yards, and nine of those were on third or fourth down,” he said. “That’s where we need to correct some of the deficiencies.”
“We had guys in the right position to do it, but we had missed tackles,” Boudreaux said. “One time specifically, they threw a screen pass and gained 16 years based just off missed tackles, and we could have been off the field. If we get off the field on third down, it’s a different ball game definitely.”
The win might not have come with style points, but it did position the Cajuns for a Saturday game in which a victory will continue the season by two games. The championship game is at the site of the East Division champion, which will be determined when Appalachian State hosts Troy Saturday, and UL-Lafayette would also assure itself of its sixth bowl appearance in eight seasons with a win that will complete a sweep of its West Division rivals.
The Cajuns haven’t played a “winner-take-all” game to end the Sun Belt season since the conference began football in 2001, but Napier said he wasn’t worried about his players not having the experience of big season-ending games.
“I think it’s a huge positive, in my opinion,” he said. “It makes things more relevant. I think there’s a certain set of problems that go with this, but I’m not concerned about that. I’m just happy to be here and certainly proud of our team for the way they’ve stayed the course, stayed focused on what was important and got ourselves in contention.”