UL-Lafayette football team hits stride, prepares for key SBC game with WKU

Associated Press photo by Phil Sandlin -- Louisiana-Lafayette's Hunter Thibodaux (37) tries to reach for the football after Florida punter Kyle Christy's punt was blocked. ULL's Blake Comminie (47) grabbed the ball and returned it for a touchdown in the second half Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. Show caption
Associated Press photo by Phil Sandlin -- Louisiana-Lafayette's Hunter Thibodaux (37) tries to reach for the football after Florida punter Kyle Christy's punt was blocked. ULL's Blake Comminie (47) grabbed the ball and returned it for a touchdown in the second half Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.

LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette football coach Mark Hudspeth was concerned about his team’s letdown possibilities … until Sunday night.

The Ragin’ Cajuns suffered through moments of torment when Florida, now ranked sixth, escaped with a last-second, 27-20 win Saturday afternoon, and Hudspeth knew three key Sun Belt Conference games awaited — notably a Saturday home contest against Western Kentucky.

His fears were placated during ULL’s traditional Sunday night practice, one held in a drizzling rain rather than in the Cajuns’ indoor facility.

“I was worried we may have a little hangover, but the kids came out and responded extremely well,” Hudspeth said. “They looked eager. You can tell they feel like we’re hitting our stride, and that their confidence has never been higher.”

After last week’s 40-24 road humbling of UL-Monroe and taking a 20-13 lead into the final two minutes at the highly regarded Gators’ home Swamp, Hudspeth said his team is primed for its final three league games — three that will determine bowl eligibility and a shot at a share of the Sun Belt title.

“We’ve played our best two games of the year the last two weeks,” he said. “We were very up front at our team meeting last night, telling them what this week means to our team. (Bowl eligibility) is a carrot that’s out there, because you play this game to win championships and to go to bowls.”

Saturday’s 6 p.m. game also gives the Cajuns a chance at redemption. ULL was riding high with a six-game win streak last season and was perfect in Sun Belt play before going to Bowling Green and falling 42-23 to the rejuvenated Hilltoppers. WKU has taken the past two meetings between the teams, including a 54-21 embarrassment at Cajun Field two years ago.

“It’ll be tough,” Cajuns defensive end Emeka Onyenekwu said of bouncing back from the gut-wrenching loss to Florida, “but it helps that we’ve had Western Kentucky on our map for a while. It’ll be really easy to focus on them after the way we’ve played against them the last two years. Last year’s definitely sitting in our minds, so we have to definitely come out and show what we can do.”

Onyenekwu, named the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Week after posting nine tackles and 2.5 sacks against the Gators, wasn’t the only Cajun that pointed out last year’s result on Monday.

“We went into that game big-headed,” said wide receiver Harry Peoples, who had 10 catches against Florida Saturday. “We thought we had it in the bag, the way we’d been playing, and it didn’t happen. Our guys know we should have won that game and we should have beaten Florida, but they’re ready to put that behind them.”

What is in front of the Cajuns (5-4, 3-2) are league games against WKU and South Alabama at home and a season-ending trip to Florida Atlantic. One win makes the Cajuns bowl-eligible, and two would virtually guarantee a bowl trip, while three in a row could mean a share of the league title depending on the outcome of conference games over the next two weeks.

WKU is now out of that conference title chase, its 37-28 upset to FAU on Saturday giving the Hilltoppers their third league loss. WKU stood at 5-1 and had beaten Arkansas State and Troy to start SBC play but has since lost three of four.

Hudsepth knows it’s also a make-or-break game for WKU (6-4, 3-3) in the bowl picture. The Cajuns earned an invitation to the New Orleans Bowl last year despite their 6-2 mark finishing behind the 7-1 mark of a WKU squad that was snubbed for a postseason berth.

“Any time you’re number one in the league in total defense (also rushing and scoring defense), you’re going to be a good football team,” Hudspeth said “Everybody thinks of WKU as a running team, but last year they hurt us with the pass. (WKU quarterback Kawaun) Jakes threw for a lot of yards, and he’s very effective in what they do.

“That’s going to be a big challenge, especially when you have to put enough guys in the box to stop the run.”

The Cajuns defense held Florida to 311 offensive yards, ULL’s best numbers in four games since the Tulane win in early October. The Cajuns did that in part by going to a four-man defensive front instead of their regular three-man alignment, and Hudspeth said that WKU might see more of that this week – or maybe not.

“The defensive line’s one of our strengths right now because we have more depth … we’re somewhat thin at linebacker with some injuries,” he said. “Our d-line did a nice job and got a lot of pressure, got to the quarterback (five sacks, compared to one for UF’s vaunted defense). But against Western, we may do a one-man front, a two-man front, maybe even a five-man front. We’ll do what we have to do.”