Sun Belt Showdown: Louisiana Ragin Cajuns vs Arkansas State Red Wolves
News Flash: The Cajuns and the Red Wolves aren’t pals, buddies or bros. Instead, they are bitter, angry, seething hot rivals for which neither will give mercy or quarter on Thursday Night.
Wolves @ Cajuns, Thursday October 19th, 6:30 CST at Centennial Bank Stadium, broadcast on ESPNU
The Sun Belt is a conference in a constant state of flux, watching members bail, inviting others, and even daring to boot some out. But the Sun Belt also has its “OGs” – its original gangstas. Here is where the heat of the Sun Belt is at its most intense.
Arkansas State and Louisiana (once known as “University of Southwestern Louisiana” and later “UL-Lafayette”) have met and waged war since 1953. They’ve vied for championships in three different conferences (Southland, Big Sky and Sun Belt). Louisiana and Arkansas State are the oldest football members of the Sun Belt, pounding members in and out of the conference since 2001. Both programs have multiple conference titles. Neither has love for the other.
Best rivalry in the Sun Belt? Debate me on Twitter, @astatefanrules.
When last these titans met
Red Wolves and Cajuns have swapped paint 43 times. As always, the most important one is the last. Arkansas State sauntered into Cajun Stadium with a 15 conference game win streak, the latest a 35-3 demolishing of #25 Troy. Louisiana was not impressed, however, slugging it out with the Red Wolves in a largely defensive battle that wasn’t decided until the final play, when Justice Hansen’s fumble – and OL Joseph Bacchus’s scoop and score – was declared an incomplete by officials, granting the Cajuns a memorable 24-19 victory.
The Cajuns have rediscovered the value of defense
Entering the season, Louisiana was thought (by me) to one of the conference’s better defensive teams, lead by Freshman All American Joe Dillon (6-3 292) and Sun Belt Second Team DL Taboris Lee (6-2 295). But the defense opened the season by allowing 48 points to Southeastern Louisiana, and then 66 points to Tulsa. After four games, the Cajuns were surrendering a whopping 53.7 points, losing 3 of those games.
However, something clicked after allowing 56 to in-state foe ULM. Against Idaho, the Louisiana D held the Vandals to only 16, sacking Matt Linehan 3 times and limiting the prolific passer to just 149 yards. The Cajuns repeated the performance the very next game, allowing just 7 points to the Texas State Bobcats while collecting two more sacks and a pick.
The Bobcats and the Vandals aren’t exactly elite competition, but going from allowing 54 points per game to 11.5 is pretty impressive. But now the Cajuns get the Red Wolves high-octane offense. Can defensive back Tracy Walker (6-2 200) and his crew shut down Arkansas State’s extraordinary corpse of receivers?
Arkansas State’s receiving squad is (perhaps) the best Jonesboro has ever seen
Saturday versus Coastal Carolina, Justice Hansen (6-4 207) tossed five TDs to four different pass catchers, continuing to spread the wealth among the Sun Belt’s deepest set of receivers. Senior wideout Dijon Paschal (6-1 209) caught his first TD pass of the season on Saturday – and he’s a starter. There’s no “go-to” guy for Hansen with, 7 receivers collecting 10+ passes and three – Chris Murray, Blake Make, and Kendrick Edwards – receiving 20 apiece.
Simply stated, opposing secondaries simply don’t know who to cover. They might as well determine assignments by rolling a set of Dungeons and Dragons dice.
The Cajuns are rolling with a new QB and a freshman RB
Louisiana started the year with junior signal caller Jordan Davis (6-3 217), who accounted for a total of six TDs. But after getting banged up in a loss against Texas A&M, junior Andre Nunez (6-3, 205) began to see more action. Now he’s the starter, and while he isn’t putting up Hansen numbers (4 TDs in three appearances) he has been careful and accurate, throwing only one pick and completing 65% of his passes.
Prudence and accuracy is just what Mark Hudspeth called for, using a reliable passing game to set up the run for his emerging superstar, freshman Trey Ragas (5-11 227). Ragas, the heir to Elijah McGuire’s mantle, is second in the Sun Belt 525 yards and 7 touchdowns to his name.
The Red Wolves defense is monstering-up
Magically, the Red Wolves defense is coming alive just in time for conference play. For its last two games, the Cajuns have allowed 11.5 points per game. The Red Wolves are allowing 21 (while the offense scores 47). But All-Sun Belt defensive end has 3 sacks in those games, and the defense as a whole has forced three turnovers and collected 7 sacks.
DC Joe Cauthen’s “bend-don’t-break” philosophy tends to unnerve fans when the team gives up big chunks between the 20s. But the unit ranks 16th in the nation in the red zone. The defense will take risks to disrupt opposing offenses. But it tightens up where the stakes are highest.
How Arkansas State wins this game
The Red Wolves offensive line needs to make Joe Dillon and Taboris Lee a non-factor, allowing super-chill QB Justice Hansen to pick the Cajuns apart (and electrify the home crowd) with multiple strikes to a variety of playmakers. Then put the outcome in the hands of a defense that wears teams out in the second half, racking up sacks and picks late in the game.
Why the Cajuns continue to menace the Red Wolves
With Andre Nunez refusing to be rattled by the Red Wolves front seven, the Cajuns maintain possession with soul-crushing drives led by Trey Ragas and fellow freshman RB Elijah Mitchell. Emboldened by the offense, the Louisiana defense becomes more aggressive, battering Hansen all night long and stifling a run game that has struggled all season.
The Red Wolves are a 12.5 point favorite at home, and the team appears to be settling in as a title defender. The Cajuns are spearheaded by a mid-season replacement QB and a duo of freshman running backs. The inexperience on a hostile stage could show as the game progresses. The Red Wolves will win, but it won’t beat the spread.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.