Ragin' Cajuns coach Napier loves playing UL Monroe last

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser
Before turning their attention to this week's visit to UL Monroe, Ragin' Cajuns Ryheem Malone (13), Ja'Marcus Bradley (2) and LaDarrius Kidd (98) celebrate with fans after UL's 48-38 win over South Alabama on Saturday night at Cajun Field.

Billy Napier is not exactly well-versed in UL-UL Monroe football history.

But the first-year Ragin’ Cajuns head coach knows enough to realize that even more than first place in the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division and a spot in the Dec. 1 SBC championship game will be on the line when two already-bowl-eligible 6-5 teams meet Saturday afternoon at Monroe in the regular-season finale for both.

“I think it’s a great thing that this game is at the end of the year — very similar to places that I’ve been in the past, whether that’s Clemson and South Carolina, Auburn-Alabama, Arizona-Arizona State,” said Napier, a former Clemson offensive coordinator who coached receivers at Alabama from 2013-16 and was Arizona State’s offensive coordinator last season.

“Certainly this game means a little more,” added Napier, whose Cajuns are coming off a 48-38 win over South Alabama, “and I think our players and staff are very aware of that.”

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In the case of UL staffers, that’s particularly true in 2018.

First-year Cajuns receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Tim Leger held the same positions at ULM in 2016 and ’17.

UL outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Matt Powledge coached ULM’s tight ends and specials teams those same two years.

Cajuns offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Rob Sale, who played at Neville High in Monroe, coached ULM’s offensive line in 2016 before doing the same under Napier at Arizona State last year.

UL defensive coordinator Ron Roberts coached for years against fellow Southland Conference-member McNeese when he was Southeastern Louisiana’s head coach from 2012-17, and current ULM coach Matt Viator coached the Cowboys.

The ties that bind really are plentiful for UL’s staff, even if Napier has not yet personally experienced the Sun Belt’s baby Iron Bowl of sorts.

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“So,” Napier said, “it just magnifies the importance to prepare at a really high level this week.”

With all that’s at stake when the two in-state rivals meet, and with Thanksgiving interrupting the week, Napier really does want his Cajuns focused as it preps for a Warhawks team coming off a 31-17 loss at Arkansas State that ended its four-game win streak.

If UL beats ULM, after all, the Cajuns will go to the Sun Belt’s first-ever title game — to play the winner of Saturday’s meeting between 9-2 Troy and 8-2 Appalachian State — and likely secure a bowl bid for the sixth time in the last eight years.

But if UL loses to ULM, its season — with six Sun Belt teams already bowl-eligible, and just five conference bowl tie-ins — could very well end at 6-6.

Being .500, in other words, may not cut it when it comes to going bowling for Sun Belt programs in 2018.

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If ULM beats UL, meanwhile, the Warhawks would need an upset Arkansas State loss at 3-8 Texas State — which fired coach Everett Withers over the weekend, after three seasons in San Marcos — to get into the SBC championship game.

But if ULM loses to UL, its season also could be done.

With all that in mind, Napier — whose Cajuns have won five of their last seven after opening 1-3 — does want to see UL finish right.

“No matter what’s happened in the past,” he said, “we’re right where we need to be relative to accomplishing a goal, which is to win the Western Division.

“This time of the year really challenges everything about who you are. … It challenges your belief, your ownership, what type of discipline you have, your toughness, your commitment to the team, the togetherness that you play with and prepare with.

“Ultimately,” Napier added, “it’s about our identity as a team right now — what we’re willing to do to go find a way to get it done.”

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Napier said the availability status of defensive Garrald McDowell, who has been out with a hip injury, for Saturday at ULM “is gonna be all about how he progresses this week” and about if swelling can be kept down. … Napier said starting cornerback Eric Garror (knee) “wasn't quite a hundred percent” and that the Cajuns "felt like it would be better to hold him” last Saturday against South Alabama in hopes he’ll be good to go at full strength Saturday at ULM. … Napier also said the Cajuns will get injured inside linebacker Ferrod Gardner back Saturday, but not nickel back Terik Miller (ankle). Gardner did not play against South Alabama.

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