Know the Enemy: UL Lafayette

By Online Columnist Paul Letlow

The 2021 season is shaping up to be one of the best in program history for a nationally ranked Louisiana Lafayette football team.

Fourth-year coach Billy Napier built a consistent winner at Lafayette. ULL number 23 (10-1, 7-0 Sun Belt Conference) has won an academic record of 10 straight games since losing in the season opener to Texas. The Cajuns have won at least 10 games in three consecutive seasons.

The Ragin ‘Cajuns won the Sun Belt West Division title for the fourth consecutive season with their victory over Georgia State. ULL will have home court advantage in the Dec. 4 Sun Belt Championship game against Appalachian State at Cajun Field.

“We turned the page very quickly at this time of year,” said Napier, whose team beat Liberty 42-14 last week. “We’re not spending a lot of time on the previous game. We’re sort of speeding that up and turning our attention to a ULM crew that fought against them.”

The ULM (4-7, 2-5) will close their season on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPNU) against ULL at Cajun Field. This could be the last chance for the Warhawks to topple Napier, who is mentioned as a candidate for many vacant coaching positions across the country.

“Not only are we playing Lafayette as a state rival, a game that must be surrounded.… But also, they represent the best of our conference,” said the ULM coach. Terry bowden, whose team lost 27-14 to LSU last Saturday. “Right now, they are the elite of our conference. Their coach is the most prominent name in the conference. Make it difficult for this school to keep this coach for long.”

ULL beat ULM, 70-20, in 2020 but have had tight calls the previous two seasons. The late misfires cost the ULM a 31-30 loss in 2019 and a 31-28 loss in 2018. Napier said he respects the effort he saw from rebuilding the Warhawks under Bowden.

“The ULM team that we played against last year and watched last year was a bit of an outlier in my opinion,” Napier said. “They’ve had quite a few internal issues with college, administration and certainly COVID-19 has affected them a little differently than others. But before that, ULM was a well-respected team. I can’t. say it loud enough.

“In ’18’19, they were playing for bowl eligibility at the end of the season.”

ULL has a veteran squad with eight “super seniors” on the roster this year, in quarterback Levi Lewis, linebacker Ferrod Gardner, offensive lineman Ken Marks, wide receiver Jalen Williams, linebacker Chauncey Manac, nose tackle Tayland Humphrey, security guard Cameron Solomon and kicker Nate Snyder. Of the eight, Marks and Gardner are in their seventh season of eligibility.

Lewis is 32-7 as a starting quarterback and ranks first in program history in career passing touchdowns and second in career passing yards. Lewis shot three touchdown passes last week in a road win over Liberty. This season, Lewis completed 189 of 308 passes for 2,274 yards and 18 touchdowns while rushing for 206 yards and three scores.

“You better make sure he doesn’t beat you up on his own because he can do so many things,” Bowden said of Lewis. “He’s had such a great career that this year seems like another year, an average year. But that’s because they have more playmakers and a defense that just shut people down.”

The Cajuns are averaging 32.2 points and 408.8 total yards per game. ULL is averaging 194.7 rushing yards per game, behind a seasoned offensive line that boasts four linemen with more than 30 career starts.

Running back Chris Smith leads ULL with 803 rushing yards and is second on the team with eight touchdowns. Against Arkansas State on Oct. 21, Smith ran for 238 yards on 24 carries and scored two touchdowns. His 238 yards were fifth in ULL history.

Running back Montrell Johnson sits second on the team with 714 rushing yards on 130 attempts and leads the Cajuns with 11 rushing touchdowns. In the Arkansas State victory, Johnson scored on a 99-yard touchdown run that broke a program record, the Sun Belt Conference record and tied an NCAA record.

The Cajun defense is tied for 13th nationally in defensive scoring, holding its opponents at 18.7 points per game. ULL produced six turnovers with seven sacks in the win over Liberty a week ago and recorded 32 takeaways this season.

Manac took the lead with 8.5 sacks and tied a team record with four against Liberty. The outside linebacker took home the Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts.

Defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill has recorded 49 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks in 10 games played this season.

Linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill leads the Cajuns with 67 total tackles, two rushed quarterbacks and a forced fumble.

Cornerback Eric Garror had six assists and two of ULL’s nine team interceptions.

Safety Percy Butler is third on the team with 55 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, one interception, three fumbles recovered and two breakouts.

Punter Rhys Byrns ranks 11th nationally, averaging 46.5 yards per punt in 11 games this season.

“It will be a big challenge for us,” Bowden said. “But also an opportunity to go out there and face a team (that will give us) after a full season an indication of where we are now with the best in the conference.”

Warhawk Connections: Former ULM head coach Matt Viator is now Napier’s special assistant on the ULL staff. Viator was released after ULM went from 0 to 10 in 2020, including a 70 to 20 loss to ULL a year ago. He was 19-39 in five seasons at ULM but beat the Cajuns 56-50 in double overtime in 2017.

Coordinator of special ULM teams and defensive trainer Ron West spent seven years as a defensive coordinator at ULL (1986-92), most notably as an assistant head coach in 1992.

Prior to joining the ULM team in 2018, offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Tim Leger served as wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at ULM from 2016 to 2017.

Cajun Stew: Saturday’s game marks the 57th meeting between ULM and ULM with the Ragin ‘Cajuns leading the series, 30-25. The Ragin ‘Cajuns canceled a victory in 2011 due to the use of ineligible players. … ULL is 31-5 since the start of the 2019 season.… The Cajuns are 27-7 against opposition Sun Belt under coach Napier, including a perfect 16-0 record against the members of the Western Division of the conference. … The Ragin ‘Cajuns are 14-1 in November under Napier. … ULL has won seven straight wins at Cajun Field. … ULL scored 40 or more points 15 times under the Napier era.

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