e_SDLqMontrel gave us some outside speed, but fortunately we have some depth there.” mark hudspeth, ULL coach
LAFAYETTE — They’ll go into Saturday’s Sun Belt Conference football opener with their season starter at running back out for the season with a knee injury.
They’ll be on the road facing a Troy team that’s beaten them seven of the past nine meetings, and has averaged more than 39 points against them in the last six games.
And, they’ll face a team that hasn’t lost a home opener since Ronald Reagan was president.
So why is Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth smiling about his Cajuns?
A lot of that has to do with his squad’s 40-0 domination of FCS member Lamar in Saturday’s season opener. The Cajuns scored on all eight first-half possessions, forced four turnovers in the game’s first 24 minutes, tossed their first shutout in 69 games and played almost perfectly in the kicking game.
“That was a very solid first-game first half,” Hudspeth said Tuesday at his weekly news luncheon. “Our defense did some nice things, forced some turnovers and preserved the shutout late. And a lot of guys got to play on both sides of the ball.”
But in the same breath, Hudspeth said Saturday’s performance wouldn’t be enough against a Trojans team that was just as impressive in its season-opening 39-29 win over nearby rival UAB.
“On the film, we saw a lot of things that still have to be improved on,” he said. “We didn’t look near where we need to be getting into Sun Belt play. We have to get much better to go play at Troy, and we’re going to focus on things we have to get better at.”
One thing the Cajuns (1-0) will have to improve is finishing drives. ULL had five first-half possessions that began in Lamar territory, and wound up with field goals on three of those. In all, four of the Cajuns’ eight first-half scores came on Brett Baer field goals.
“We weren’t too excited about settling for field goals,” said junior center Andre Huval, one of four ULL offensive linemen who now combine for 72 career starts. “None of us five came off the ball well. ... Lamar was in some weird looks, but we were a little unsure, and didn’t run it like we should have. We can’t do that this week against Troy.”
ULL only totaled 143 rushing yards, with the short fields having something to do with that — the eight scoring drives totaled only 260 yards. But this week, the Cajuns will be without the services of redshirt freshman Montrel Carter, who tore both his ACL and LCL knee ligaments during the win. The former Cecilia High School player had claimed the starting role in fall camp but is now sidelined for the season.
Fortunately for the Cajuns, returning starter Alonzo Harris will likely step back into that role. The Sun Belt’s 2011 Freshman of the Year rushed for 700 yards and eight TDs last year while starting nine games, and figures to share time with redshirt freshman Effrem Reed of Dutchtown. Reed, who played most of Saturday’s second half, ended up as ULL’s rush leader with 55 yards and one score against the Cardinals, but he also had the Cajuns’ only turnover with a third-quarter fumble.
“It’ll come down to who can take care of the ball and have their assignments down,” Hudspeth said. “Montrel gave us some outside speed, but fortunately we have some depth there. Effrem has the lateral movement, and Alonzo wants to slam it up there between the tackles.”
The Cajuns wound up plus-three in turnover margin — currently tied for the nation’s fourth-best mark — and sophomore first-year nose guard starter Justin Hamilton said that wasn’t by accident.
“We practice on getting the ball out,” said the 330-pounder whose two forced fumbles is tied for the national lead after one week. “After a while it becomes instinct. The first thing is to control your gap, then you go make a play ... secure the tackle and try to get the ball out. If you win the turnover battle, you’re probably going to win the game.”
Hudspeth pointed out that, out of 49 games that matched FBS opponents this week, 45 were won by teams that led in turnover margin. He said that part of the reason Troy slumped from its Sun Belt domination to 3-9 last year was a minus-12 margin in turnovers.
ULL’s turnovers gave Baer the chance to make history Saturday. The senior kicker hit four first-half field goals with a career long of 52 on his first try, setting a school record for consecutive field goals made that now stands at 15. Baer also tied a school record with 16 points by kicking, and added to his status as the most accurate kicker in NCAA history — he is 29-of-31 (93.5 percent) in his career, well ahead of the NCAA Division I accuracy mark of 87.8 percent (43-of-49) set by Florida State’s Bobby Raymond in 1983-84.
“Our kicking game was great,” Hudspeth said, “but we’ll have to be just as good this week.”
Troy has won its past 25 home openers dating to 1987, and before last year’s 31-17 ULL win at Cajun Field the Trojans had won five straight in the series.
“They’ve had this one circled on the calendar,” Huval said. “They thought last year was an upset, which we didn’t think it was.”
“I’m sure they want revenge from last year,” Hudspeth said. “They hadn’t had any trouble with us in the past, and maybe didn’t expect us to play that well. I’d sure like to have maybe two more nonconference games, but as long as they’ve only had one game just like us, I’m good with that.”