The 49th Meeting of the Ragin’ Cajuns and the Red Wolves Should Be Plenty Hateful
If you ask the Cajuns to identify a rival, they might say something cute like “LSU” or something more honest, like Louisiana Tech. Thanks to the Sun Belt’s divisional format and Louisiana’s success on the gridiron, many Cajuns feel that Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina are rivals. Of course, ULM a true in-state, in-conference rival, sharing disputes ranging from petty to cataclysmic.
Arkansas State and Louisiana first met on the football field in 1953, but didn’t really start engaging with consistency until the late 1960s. In 2001, both programs joined the Sun Belt and put up identical 2-4 conference records. Arkansas State won that first conference matchup 26-20. However, the Cajuns have won the last four, the most recent a 28-27 victory that was among last year’s more memorable A-State contests.
Cajuns versus Red Wolves games have been marked by dirty plays, unsportsmanlike penalties, after-whistle fisticuffs and hard words. A-State old timers refuse to call the Cajuns “Louisiana,” preferring to go with either “ULL” or “Ohh-la-la.” Because both teams need the win so badly, relations aren’t likely to improve. Refs, you have been warned.
Red Wolves fans likely remember Cajuns running back Montrell Johnson taking a 99 yard handoff to the house and running back Chris Smith rushing for an easy 238 yards that included a game winning 74 yard touchdown, underscoring Arkansas State’s woe on defense. That evening, the Cajuns ran for 424 yards – 388 of which were toted by Johnson and Smith.
And yet, the Red Wolves seething hatred for the Cajuns kept the game close, with quarterback Layne Hatcher throwing for an even 300 yards and three TD passes – one of which to Te’Vailance Hunt, the team’s leading receiver that evening.
Life is different for the Cajuns now, tho
The win over the Red Wolves was just another victory that comprised the 2021 Sun Belt Championship campaign for the Cajuns. Since then, Louisiana lost its rising star head coach Billy Napier to Florida, and he took Montrell Johnson and 4-star offensive linemen O’Cyrus Torrence and Kamryn Waites with him. Four-star RB Emani Bailey bailed for TCU, and LSU gobbled up safety Mekhi Williams-Garner and wide receiver Kyren Lacy.
Also gone, longtime starting quarterback Levi Lewis finally graduated, and the NFL drafted offensive tackle Max Mitchell and safety Percy Butler. Let’s be honest: that’s a major talent drain out of Lafayette, leaving newly promoted head coach Mike Desormeaux holding a bag filled with expectations but light on star-caliber talent.
Who are the 2022 Cajuns, then?
With Lewis released into the real world, Desormeaux has attempted to implement a two-quarterback system comprised of Chandler Fields and Ben Woodridge. The result has been the 98th ranked passing offensive in the nation that averages about 212 yards per game. Of the two, Woodridge has been a more careful and effective signal caller, and we’ve seen his minutes grow.
What might be most alarming is the downturn seen at the run game. Without Montrell Johnson and Emani Bailey, Louisiana’s once fearsome run game is now ranked 104th in the nation. Complicating matters is a recent hamstring injury to Chris Smith, leaving the totes to Dre’lyn Washington and Terrence Williams against Marshall. The two backs would combine for fewer yards (40) than quarterback Ben Woodridge (45).
Where the offense lacks in punch, the Cajuns make up for with defense, which ranks 48th nationally and has only surrendered 15 touchdowns. Opponents are scoring fewer than 20 points per game against Louisiana, and are led by the Cajuns big 6’5″ senior linebacker Andre Jones and senior linebacker Jourdan Quibodeaux, who leads the team with 46 tackles.
How do the Red Wolves Thwart the Cajuns?
The Cajuns offense produces the fewest yards in the Sun Belt, and while the defense has had its moments, the unit is among the Sun Belt’s least effective in the Red Zone. Statistically, the defending Sun Belt Champions are among the weakest teams the Red Wolves will face this season.
However, Cajuns Field is a big advantage for Louisiana. South Alabama, one of the best teams in the Sun Belt, barely escaped Lafayette with a 20-17 win. In that game, the Cajuns forced a couple turnovers and Chris Smith ran for over 100 yards. Without Smith, the onus falls more squarely on Andre Jones and the Cajuns defense, which means the beleaguered A-State offensive line will be facing a motived squad pressured to make something happen.
Defensively, the A-State front line has a challenge. The Cajuns have allowed only nine sacks this season (while the Red Wolves have surrendered 23). The Red Wolves should focus on closing gaps, making tackles and putting the brakes on leading receiver 6’4″ senior Michael Jefferson.
Offensively, the Red Wolves should put some relief on the offensive line by utilizing James Blackman’s accuracy, peppering the field with short and midrange passes to TE Saydue Traore, a refocused Jeff Foreman, the sure-handed Te’Vailance Hunt and (if healthy) the speedy Champ Flemming. The Cajuns’ run defense is among the top of the Sun Belt – and gains from Johnny Lang Jr. and Brian Snead (if healthy) is a plus.
The Analysis that is Final
The Red Wolves haven’t won a road game since defeating ULM last season. Before that? A victory over Kansas State in 2020. Arkansas State is struggling and struggling mightily, with the latest trouble spot being the fourth quarter collapses that have cost the program three potential victories.
Can the Red Wolves win this game? I believe they can. The question is, can the team believe it for an entire four quarters?