Coach Mark Hudspeth says his UL Lafayette football team is ready for a brawl this weekend when the Ragin’ Cajuns open their season at ninth-ranked Oklahoma State.
The problem is that the Cowboys aren’t the brawling type.
UL heads to Stillwater, Okla., Saturday for a 6:10 p.m. game at Boone Pickens Stadium, opening what is universally hoped will be a successful tenure for Hudspeth. The first-year coach has already won several battles, most notably in fund-raising, facility improvement and public relations, but Saturday starts the war.
“One thing I can say right now is we are a tough team,” Hudsepth says when asked about his squad’s readiness for 2011. “The guys are physically prepared and they are tough. We’ll go toe-to-toe with anybody in a street fight.”
The street fight might not be the best metaphor — ask LSU’s Jordan Jefferson about that — but Hudspeth was only making a point. And toughness is never a bad thing in football. But OSU won’t be slugging it out. Instead, the Cowboys will be slinging it out.
The Cowboys ranked third nationally in total offense and scoring last year, putting up over 44 points per game, and were second nationally in passing offense. The Cajuns, meanwhile, ranked 112th out of 120 teams nationally in scoring defense and were 102nd against the pass.
Those are scary numbers, regardless of how tough you are, and that’s why UL is a listed 36-point underdog and most national pundits expect Saturday’s game to be a walkover for the hosts.
The two teams met last year in that rare Friday night, nationally televised game at Cajun Field, and UL got some breaks and a scintillating 97-yard kickoff return from Darryl Surgent to take a halftime lead, but things fell apart in the second half of what became a 54-28 Cowboy win.
“It looked like we ran out of gas in the second half,” Hudspeth says of that game. “If I can say one thing about this year’s team, we are in shape. Games that are close in the fourth quarter, we will outshine the opposition.”
The key this week, against the best offense UL will face all season, is keeping it close until then. And getting offensive production will be more essential than anything else this weekend if the Cajuns are to keep it close.
“We got into a rhythm some against them last year and got some big plays,” says quarterback Chris Masson, the probable but still not definite starter for Saturday. “That’s what it’ll take again. We want to score every time we go out, and I think our defense is going to get some stops and create some turnovers.
“But if it turns into a shoot out, it’s on us (the offense).”
On the tote board of team breakdowns by position, it’s likely the only place the Cajuns would have an advantage is in the “intangibles.” While most have a good idea of OSU’s plans, UL is the unknown with the new coaching staff and new schemes. It’s a waste of time for opponents to prepare for the Cajuns by looking at last year’s films, and Hudspeth has kept a tight lid on practice sessions to keep it that way.
“They will have a little feeling of uncertainty because they haven’t seen us,” he says. “They’re hoping they know what we are going to do on offense, but there’s still going to be that little bit of uncertainty. Holding that card might give us an extra advantage.”
Advantage or not, no one’s expecting the Cajuns to come back from Stillwater with a win. Most UL supporters aren’t going to make early judgments until the next game at Kent State, the Sept. 17 home opener against Nicholls State or the Sun Belt Conference opener at preseason league favorite Florida International that wraps up September play.
Hudspeth doesn’t seem like the type to claim moral victories. But he also isn’t putting it past his team to catch lightning in a bottle.
“In college football there are going to be 60 games every week, and 60 teams are going to be favored and 60 are not going to be favored,” he says. “I promise you every week there are teams that are not favored that win football games. You can say, ‘Coach, you’re not going in thinking you’re going to win, are you?’ and I can tell you we’re not going in thinking we’re going to lose, either.”