Defense brightens Cajuns' outlook in win

Kevin Foote
The Daily Advertiser

It was a cold, dark and pretty dreary afternoon and evening at Cajun Field.

UL's Michael Jacquet celebrates his interception with teammate Kamar Greenhouse during the Cajuns' 36-22 home win over Georgia State on Saturday at Cajun Field.

The UL Ragin’ Cajuns even wore black uniforms to add to that melancholy feeling that prevailed early on in the 36-22 win over Georgia State.

It also didn’t help the mood around the joint when UL’s offense punted three of its first four possessions and Georgia State’s offense punted four times and missed a field goal in its first five drives.

Of course, the only thing that truly would have made the experience miserable for coach Billy Napier’s Cajuns was actually losing the game to a 2-7 team on the first cold home game of the season with so much riding on the outcome.

More:Second half left UL fans wondering what might have been

And just when it seriously began to appear possible when the visiting Panthers narrowed UL’s lead to 16-14 with 1:46 left in the third period, somehow the Cajuns brightened things up in a hurry with a late flurry any Cajun fan should appreciate — especially those with frozen toes.

In a matter of moments, things went from scary to over. Running backs Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais continued to roll with touchdown runs, while the defense delivered a three-and-out and a Michael Jacquet interception to put the Cajuns on easy street.

“It was one of those deals,” Napier said. “You’ve got to give Georgia State some credit. They got us off the field. They made some third-down stops. A few miscues in terms of the stunts they were running that we didn’t expect. But they got us off the field.

“There’s been days where we weren’t able to overcome that sort of start.”

On this night, the offense was able to stay patient long enough to allow the running game to explode to the tune of 355 yards and put the game away.

More:With Elijah Mitchell ailing, UL rushing depth valued

The reasons for that was crafty punting by Rhys Byrns, who dropped three punts inside the 10, and the defense, which forced five punts and limited the Panthers to 2-for-13 on third down.

“We’re growing as a team,” Napier said.

“Because we’re playing better on (special) teams, playing better on defense, we were able to get into the locker room, get it fixed and go out and put together more production in the third and fourth quarters.”

Earlier this season, Napier did predict there would be a time when the defense would carry the offense. It did for three quarters in Saturday’s win.

“There’s been many a time where they were frustrated, people were saying this about them and that about them, but I ain’t buying it,” Napier said. “We’re just going to keep working.”

Linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, who collected a career-high nine tackles, said the defense never doubted its potential.

More:A second chance is all UL linebacker Gardner needed

“Absolutely, regardless of what anybody said, we knew what we were capable of as a defense,” Boudreaux said. “When we play our brand of football, we’re a scary outfit all across the board.

“We really have playmakers at every position on defense. If we keep playing hard and keep playing physical like we did tonight, the sky’s the limit for us.”

On this night, though, UL’s front wall stood strong. Zi’Yon Hill had nine solos tackles, a sack and a stop behind the line.

“Guys like Zi’Yon Hill, LaDarrius Kidd and Bennie Higgins, they were winning their one-on-one matchups on the defensive line,” Boudreaux said. “That’s big. Any time as linebackers, we don’t have to fight off any offensive linemen, our jobs are easier.”

Chauncey Manac’s return was huge with six tackles.

More:Napier's play-calling duties tricky proposition

“Chauncey’s a dominant force up there,” Boudreaux said. “It’s very hard for guys to block him. He’s fast; he’s big; he’s physical. When he comes back, that’s extra gas to power the defense.”

On a night when it could have been “lights out” on UL’s Sun Belt West Division title hopes, the bright spots were hard to notice at times — largely because they came from so many unexpected places.

And in Napier’s mind, most importantly they came from a balanced team effort.

“I’m proud of that (defensive) staff,” he said. “We’re getting better leadership on the defense. Young players are growing up.”