Cajuns ground game showed a flash vs. No. 1 Alabama
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After a loss like the one UL was handed Saturday, a first-year head coach like Billy Napier is left looking high and low for any sort of silver lining.
He found one in the late-game effort of his offense, and especially its running attack, during a 56-14 road loss to No. 1 Alabama.
The contest was over at halftime, when the Crimson Tide led 49-0.
Really, it was done after the first half of the first quarter — one in which Alabama was up 21-0 with less than seven minutes on the clock expired.
By the time the second half rolled around, and especially during a fourth quarter that UL 'won' 14-0, Alabama was using players who don’t always see the field in SEC games — third-teamers, walk-ons and the like.
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Napier understands that.
But he still appreciates how the top half of his roster fared against the bottom half of Alabama’s.
“It just goes to show you when the personnel’s even and you do your job and execute on a consistent basis, you can have success,” Napier said.
It’s a message delivered and evidently heard.
“Fourth quarter we executed the things we were supposed to be doing,” said quarterback Andre Nunez, who threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Ja’Marcus Bradley to cover the spread with just less than four minutes remaining.
“I think that just goes to show we can play with anybody. It’s just a matter of fact that we’ve got to execute the plays.”
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For UL on Saturday, success was perhaps most-personified with what some of its running backs were able to do.
Raymond Calais Jr. rushed five times for 108 yards one week earlier in a 30-28 loss to fellow Sun Belt Conference-member Coastal Carolina, but Alabama bottled up the speedster, limiting him to just 5 yards on six carries.
Power runners Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell, however, had their moments.
Ragas ran 16 times for 111 yards and a touchdown, an average of 6.9 yards per carry. Of his hard-earned 111, 54 came in the first half and he had 80 through first quarters.
That made Ragas the first running back to rush for 100-plus yards on Alabama since Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson — now with the NFL’s Detroit Lions — did it in last season’s Iron Bowl.
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Heading into this season, according to 247Sports.com, only 13 rushers had hit 100 or more yards on the ground against Alabama since coach Nick Saban’s arrival in 2007, a 152-game span.
Among them are notable names like Ohio State’s Ezekial Elliott, Arkansas’ Darren McFadden, Auburn’s Johnson and Tre Mason, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Todd Gurley, Virginia’s Trey Edmunds, Ole Miss’ BenJarvis Green-Ellis and Jordan Wilkins, and LSU’s Jeremy Hill.
Lots of NFL guys there.
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Moreover, no one had done it in Alabama’s four other games this season.
So Ragas becomes the 14th.
The effort also gave Ragas his third 100-yard rushing game of the season, along with ones against Grambling (142 yards) and Coastal Carolina (103), and the Ragin’ Cajuns their fourth, including the one by Calais.
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Mitchell, meanwhile, ran 11 times for 85 yards, including a career-long 40-yarder to the 1 that set up Ragas’ TD. He averaged 7.7 yards per carry.
Had Mitchell reached 100 yards, he and Ragas would have become the first two opponent rushers with 100-plus yards against Alabama in the same game since two from Minnesota did it in the 2004 Music City Bowl.
Now, granted, a lot of what Mitchell accomplished really did come late. He had 67 of his 85 in the final period.
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Still, it’s something to hang a hat on — so long as it’s not houndstooth — as the Cajuns prepare to return to Sun Belt play with Saturday night’s visit to Texas State.
That same running attack, and offense, after all, disappointed Napier with its struggles in its first half against Coastal Carolina.
But it then got its act together in the second half of that loss.
Now, with seven Sun Belt games still to go — and after 'winning' late against Alabama's junior varsity — Napier at least has renewed confidence that the 1-3 Cajuns indeed can get it done with their ground game when need be.
“We’ve got talented backs, and I think we have a good offensive line,” he said. “As long we give ’em a good plan, and they go execute the plan, we can rush the football effectively.”
After getting swallowed by an onslaught of crimson, that may be as silver as it gets.
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