Champs collide when Cajuns, Jaguars clash Saturday

LAFAYETTE — A lot has happened since the last time Southern and Louisiana-Lafayette played a football game.

Both teams were on the verge of turnarounds when their first meeting opened the 2009 season ... a good turnaround for the Ragin’ Cajuns program, one not-so-good for the Jaguars.

Southern had won five Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in the previous 16 years and wasn’t that far removed from its 2003 black college national championship. But one year after the Cajuns’ 42-19 win, Southern fell into the doldrums of the worst three-year stretch in the proud program’s history — a meager 10 wins in a three-year period.

UL-Lafayette knew about doldrums at the time. The Cajuns had one winning season in 13 years heading into that 2009 game and hadn’t won more than six games since 1993. They were still two years away from the dramatic change of fortunes that has resulted in 27 victories and three bowl wins in three years.

While the Cajuns were clicking off that third 9-4 season, the Jaguars had a bounceback for the ages and matched that record while winning the SWAC title.

Now, the two conference champions meet in a 2014 opener that promises big numbers for Saturday’s 6 p.m. kickoff, and not just on the field. The teams drew a Cajun Field-record 41,357 for that 2009 game, and the stadium’s been expanded this year with the debut of the nearly 6,000-seat addition in the south end zone.

“If they set a record then, if we don’t blow that out of the water, I’ll be shocked,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said.

A shaky weather forecast could dampen those hopes, but not the potential for other big numbers.

The Jaguars scored 31 or more points in six straight games to end 2013, the last one a 34-27 win over Jackson State in the SWAC title game that was also revenge for one of SU’s early season losses. The Cajuns averaged 34 points per game last season in winning nine of their last 11 outings, including a 24-21 victory over Tulane in December’s New Orleans Bowl.

The major difference is that UL-Lafayette has virtually all of its offensive weapons returning, including preseason All-Sun Belt Conference quarterback and Baton Rouge native Terrance Broadway. Southern was a force last year behind senior Dray Joseph, who threw for 30 touchdowns, but will now field a first-time collegian in redshirt freshman Deonte Shorts.

“It’ll probably be a culture shock for him, but it’s still football,” Jaguars coach Dawson Odums said this week. “He sat behind one of the better signal-callers in the history of Southern University, and now it’s his turn to prove himself.”

Shorts doesn’t have to carry the full load, because he’ll have three seniors and two juniors in his front wall and capable skill personnel everywhere else. Lenard Tillery rushed for 784 yards and nine scores in a throw-it-first offense last year. Hudspeth, for one, thinks the Jaguars may try to use that running game more, at least in the season opener.

“I think their running backs are very good, and they’ve got a lot of depth,” Hudspeth said when asked what he would do in the Jaguars’ position. “I’d do things like sprint-out, try to play the quick game and then rely on a really good running game.”

Hudspeth knows a good running game when he sees it. His team has all three of the backs — Broadway and running backs Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire — on the preseason All-Sun Belt team, and that threesome accounted for 2,247 yards and 30 rush touchdowns last year. Broadway also threw for 2,419 yards and 19 scores, completing nearly 63 percent of his passes.

“They’re probably one of the top 30 teams in the country,” Odums said of the Cajuns. “They’re very good in the running game, and they place a heavy emphasis on it. There’s a reason they were both selected all-conference.”

Stopping those attacks will be challenging for both defenses — both of which had good and not-so-good moments in 2013. UL-Lafayette had to rebuild its linebacker corps but has seven starters back on its deepest defense since Hudspeth joined the program before the 2011 season.

SU improved defensively throughout last year, giving up nearly 330 rush yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in the first three games and then allowing only 162.6 rush yards per game in the Jaguars’ final 10 outings.

Hudspeth is just happy to be opening a season at home, something the Cajuns have done only once since that 2009 opener against the Jaguars. Last year, UL-Lafayette didn’t play its third home game until November.

“It’s a huge difference,” he said. “It seemed like forever that we didn’t play a home game last year. But now, we’re playing an in-state opponent that’s 45 miles away, and a lot of these guys know each other. A lot were teammates, they played against each other, and when we run through that tunnel and that place is slam-packed, it’s going to be exciting.”