Before facing ULM, UL still has much to fix on defense

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

It’s been a roller coaster ride for the UL defense this season, one featuring more downs than ups.

UL's Deuce Wallace (left) celebrates his interception in last Saturday's win over South Alabama with fellow safety Corey Turner.

But Ragin’ Cajuns coach Billy Napier has made the point time and time again that there would be occasions when the Cajun offense carries the defense, and occasions when the defense carries the offense.

More often than not in 2018, it’s been the former.

Over the past two weeks, including last Saturday’s 48-38 win over South Alabama and a preceding 36-22 win over Georgia State, UL’s defense stood strong in one and struggled in another.

All of which makes it imperative that UL’s Ron Roberts-coordinated defense answer the bell in a regular-season finale Saturday at UL Monroe, where a spot in the Dec. 1 Sun Belt Conference championship game is guaranteed for the 6-5 Cajuns if they win.

More:Ragin' Cajuns coach Napier loves playing UL Monroe last

Against Georgia State, the defense kept UL in it until the Cajuns were able to pull away with 20 fourth-quarter points.

Afterward, head coach Billy Napier heralded improvement seen since the start of the season — and explained why it took some time in coming along.

“We’ve got a bunch of new faces over there that started the year with zero experience,” he said, “and those guys have continued to get better.

“I think we’ve coached better. I think players have made fundamental improvement. We’ve eliminated the mental errors, the loafs, the technique issues.

“And then we’ve got some solid play,” Napier added, “from a lot of veteran players who maybe were here last year and have started to really play at a high level for us.”

More:'Selfless' Calais runs crazy in UL win over Georgia State

Guys like safety Corey Turner, inside linebacker Jacques Boudreaux and defensive lineman LaDarrius Kidd — all chief among a short list of key returning contributors, along with Bennie Higgins, Justin Middleton, Terik Miller, Chaiziere Malbrue and a few others.

Kidd had a career game back in an October loss at Appalachian State, where he recorded 10 tackles including seven solo stops.

That marked the start of some strong showings up front for the Cajuns that no-so-coincidentally accompanied the unit’s marked improvement.

In a win over Arkansas State the next week, graduate-transfer Garrald McDowell — who had eight tackles at Appalachian State — and Zi’Yon Hill came up with six stops apiece.

More:UL flexes in Sun Belt win over Arkansas State

Two outings after that, with McDowell injured and out against Georgia State, Hill had a career-high nine tackles including his first career sack.

Higgins, meanwhile, leads the unit with 38 total tackles on the season, two more than Hill and McDowell and five more than Kidd.

The defensive front, Napier said, is a spot in which the Cajuns have been “getting solid play out of some guys that maybe were not household names.”

Against South Alabama, however, UL’s defense seemed to regress — up front and throughout.

Two steps forward, one step back.

More:UL weaponizes Bradley, Mitchell in win over South Alabama

“We didn’t vice things as well as we should have,” Boudreaux said. “We kind of had guys in the right position to do it, but ultimately it just led to missed tackles.”

“We just didn’t go a great job on the perimeter, playing the blocks,” Napier added. “The fits weren’t exactly the way we wanted them to be. … That’s something we’ve got to fix.”

Especially with so much at stake against 6-5 ULM, which can get to the Sun Belt title game if it wins and Arkansas State losses Saturday at Texas State.

“Certainly a lot of things we’ve got to fix from an adjustment standpoint, tackling standpoint, getting off the field on third down,” Napier said after the loss to South Alabama. “We lost our poise. We had a few too many penalties.”

South Al wound up 11-of-19 on third-down conversions and 5-for-5 when going for it on fourth down, including four times on one 20-play drive alone.

The Jaguars, by Napier’s count, had 18 plays of 10 or more yards, nine of which came on third or fourth down during a night in which they compiled 477 yards of total offense.

“If we get off the field on third down,” Boudreaux said, “it’s a different ballgame defensively.”

Instead, the Cajun defense did just enough to hold on and to help to get UL bowl-eligible.

Column:Cajuns have 'bigger ambitions' than mere bowl-eligibility

Following Deuce Wallace’s interception of Jaguars quarterback Cole Garvin on South Alabama’s first play from scrimmage, second-half fumble recoveries by Hill — on a cough caused by Tra’Vontae Booker 3 and Andre Landry helped the cause.

“You take (a late) touchdown off the board,” Napier said, “our defense got it under control in the second half, created takeaways, which was a big part of the game.”

So, too, was putting all of those failures on fourth down out of Cajun minds.

“That’s the key,” Napier said.

“You’ve got to have a ‘next play’ mentality the entire game, regardless of the scoreboard, regardless of the scenario. It’s about playing to a standard, and if you’re a competitor you expect adversity.”

Without a doubt, UL has dealt with issues on defense that will go without repair in 2018.

Related:UL football, what you need to know

Depth, or lack thereof, has a lot to do with that.

“There’s a significant drop off when your 2s (backups) go in the game,” Napier said, “and that’s pretty evident.”

Yet, over the course of time, Napier suggested, the Cajuns have figured out how to overcome their various shortcomings and miscues on what’s become quite a wild ride.

“That’s the thing I think we’re getting better at, is we’re competing better,” he said. “We’re not short-circuiting and shutting down and self-destructing when we do make mistakes.

“We just keep playing — ‘OK, they made a few plays; let’s get it fixed; we know what happened. This guy’s got to do this better; this guy’s got to communicate better — whatever the case may be.’”

More:Where are the fans? College football teams searching for answers