Since last December, when UL brought Mark Hudspeth aboard in its latest effort to breathe life into its football program, Hudsepth has preached to anyone who would listen that there was nothing wrong with the Ragin’ Cajuns that hard work and positive thinking wouldn’t fix.
Many rolled their eyes, having seen over and over how this act played out. The desperate ones, those who would clutch at any thread that might have a life preserver at the end, hoped only for respectability this season.
Those groups now walk arm-and-arm on home Saturdays, following the Cajuns as they walk down Reinhardt Drive, a couple of hours before their now-beloved warriors find a way to conjure up another win.
Their delirium knows few boundaries now, and why not? The Cajuns are 5-1 for the first time in almost a quarter-century, having won five in a row, and their only loss came to an Oklahoma State team that could be playing for the national championship in New Orleans in January.
Most expected Hudspeth’s team to be 1-5 at this point while hopefully showing some improvement that could translate into more success over the next few seasons. The pre-season pundits put the win total between one and three, and one magazine tabbed the Cajuns as the worst of the nation’s 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Athlon’s College Football magazine quoted an unnamed opposing Sun Belt Conference assistant coach thusly: “I hope Mark Hudspeth knows what he’s doing. He is taking over one of the worst teams in the nation.” (For the sake of disclosure, I wrote Athlon’s Sun Belt preview section, but I don’t know the source of the unattributed quotes that were added to each team’s profile. I giddily report that several of the quotes have already been proven wrong.)
Fortunately, the hyper-active Hudspeth didn’t believe the clippings, and more important, he convinced his red-jerseyed squad that the naysayers were wrong. And now they’re Louisiana’s best football story that doesn’t involve an off-campus bar fight.
Halfway through the season, the Cajuns have already beaten both of last year’s Sun Belt co-champions and the two teams picked to finish one-two in this year’s title chase. One of those wins came on the road at Florida International – a team that’s already beaten Big East and Conference USA teams and the popular pick to win the league.
I didn’t think FIU would win this year’s trophy. I thought Troy was still the best and most athletic team in the Sun Belt, right up until the final moments of UL’s 31-17 victory over the Trojans Saturday night.
Troy still may have the best athletes among Sun Belt football teams now, but there is no question as to which team in the league is doing a better job of finding ways to win.
The starting quarterback, one who threw for 329 yards a week earlier, leaves in the first series Saturday with a sprained ankle. No problem: enter Chris Masson, who replaced Blaine Gautier and hit 21-of-29 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. The Cajuns haven’t had an interception in three games.
Opponents can’t say the same. When Melvin White returned an interception for a stunning 89-yard touchdown moments before halftime, it completed the superfecta for the UL secondary this year. Each of the Cajun starting defensive backs has now returned an interception for a touchdown this season. But White’s may have been the biggest of the four, since it gave the Cajuns a stunning 24-3 lead. His run through several Troy would-be tacklers was a “give-up” play for the visitors, effectively snapping whatever swords, spears and other weapons the Trojans brought to Cajun Field to continue their five-year dominance over the UL squad.
It’s hard to fathom that, halfway through the season, the Cajuns are one win from bowl eligibility and two wins from a winning season – that’s happened once since 1995. Seven victories would almost certainly earn a bowl bid – and that’s never happened since UL moved to major-college status.
Things can change quickly. UL has to go on the road four times in its last five games, and this week’s Homecoming opponent, North Texas, beat a Big 10 team three weeks ago and led Florida Atlantic 31-3 after three quarters last Saturday before winning by the same score that the Cajuns beat Troy.
But it does bear mentioning that the Cajuns’ last six opponents have a combined 10-23 record.
Besides, after nine months of preaching the power of positive thinking, you get the idea that Hudsepth and his team are just getting warmed up.