Cajuns defense steps out of shadows in shut-down effort

LAFAYETTE — The Ragin’ Cajuns offense received the notoriety during fall camp, but it was the University of Louisiana at Lafayette defense that earned a measure of respect in Saturday’s first test of the season.

“We came out pretty solid, but we feel like we could have been better,” senior tackle Christian Ringo said. “We gotta be more consistent.”

The numbers, though, point to consistency for the Cajuns defense in its 45-6 romp over Southern on Saturday at Cajun Field. Led by Ringo and a constantly changing set of linebackers, UL-Lafayette did not allow a running play of more than nine yards to the Jaguars.

When Southern went to the air, which it did 40 times, only four times did it manage a double-digit yardage play. A 56-yard first-quarter strike from backup quarterback Austin Howard to Willie Quinn led to a missed field goal. And Howard found tight end Bradley Coleman over the middle for 23 yards and Southern’s only score midway through the third quarter.

Two other completions went for 12 and 10 yards during drives that didn’t blossom. Without the 56-yard pass play, the Jaguars managed only 66 yards on its first nine drives.

“We hate they popped those two big plays. They schemed us up well, and give them credit for that on those two,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “I thought our defensive line played a good first game. ... We were able to rotate a lot of guys and they didn’t have to go a lot of plays. They were able to stay fresh, and I thought that was big.”

The preseason forecasts of depth on the UL-Lafayette defense played out in the linebacker corps. With outside linebacker Jake Molbert sidelined by illness and inside backer Chris Hill fighting eligibility issues, the Cajuns ran that corps through a revolving door on virtually every series and found success with most combinations.

Senior Trae Johnson, who started four games as a freshman in 2011 but had only one start since, got the Saturday call and responded with eight tackles, including seven solos. Only two other Cajuns had as many as five stops with the frequent rotations, and both of those were linebackers: Kevin Fouquier and Boris Anyama.

“I’ve been through some ups and downs my whole career,” Johnson said. “It’s just about staying ready. ... You have to be ready when your number’s called and play consistently. For us, it was about trying to be physical. And the first half, we had a good physical effort.”

Hudspeth said Saturday’s performance earned Johnson another start when UL-Lafayette hosts long-time rival Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

“Trae really stepped up and played well,” he said. “He played really physical. We’re in a little bit of a holding pattern with Chris, but Trae looks like he’s going to get that spot regardless.”

One of Hudspeth’s worries entering the opener was the limited full-contact his squad had in fall drills. After the first scrimmage, the No. 1 offense and defense never held any full tackle-to-the-ground sessions, but there were few missed tackles in Saturday’s opener.

“That was a main concern going into the game, with the lack of tackling we did in two-a-days,” he said. “But overall we tackled well. I thought we played a clean game overall, but there’s a lot of room for improvement in a lot of areas.”

Southern had only 77 rushing yards as UL-Lafayette continued a 2013 trend, when the Cajuns held nine of 13 opponents under 150 rush yards. That number will be tested in Saturday’s second game when the visiting Bulldogs bring in one of the nation’s top rushers in junior Kenneth Dixon.

Dixon scored 28 touchdowns as a freshman in 2012, but knee injuries limited him to four scores last year despite running for 917 yards. As an indication of his value to the Tech offense, the Bulldogs averaged 51 points per game in 2012 and only 19 per game last year.

“They really like to run the football,” Hudspeth said. “(Dixon) is a 1,500-yard back, the best in Conference USA, so we have to do a great job of getting people in the box and wrapping up, because they come off the ball in front with a physical offensive line.”