UL football coach Mark Hudspeth has been bragging on the improvement in his team's depth this season, and more and more people are starting to believe him.
Through four games, the Ragin' Cajuns have lost their entire starting backfield to injury -- tailback Montrel Carter to a season-ending knee injury in the very first game and quarterback Blaine Gautier to a broken left (throwing) hand last Saturday night during the runaway 48-20 win over FIU.
Without those two, the Cajun offense had its best performance of the season against the Panthers, and rolled up its highest point total in five years.
Sophomore Alonzo Harris -- admittedly a full-time starter most of last season when he was the Sun Belt Conference's Freshman of the Year -- and freshman Effrem Reed have filled in admirably, combining for 430 yards rushing and four scores through four games.
And when Gautier went down, Terrance Broadway didn't miss a beat. The sophomore, who transferred to UL from Houston last year and became eligible this year (apparently, just in time), completed 15-of-19 passes for 228 yards and one score in Saturday's final three quarters, while also running for two touchdowns. He'd had similar success two games earlier when Gautier suffered bruised ribs in the Sun Belt opener against Troy.
That makes Broadway 2-0 in relief, and not by coincidence the Cajuns are 2-0 in Sun Belt play and leading the league heading into October.
"Both those guys have very similar styles of play," Hudspeth said on Monday during his weekly press luncheon. "The only difference is their release is different. Both are athletic enough to run it effectively when they need to, they both can scramble and get out of bad plays when they need to, they're both very good field generals and they can both manage the offense in two-minute very well."
That was apparent on Saturday, when the Cajuns had seen an early 24-0 lead evaporate down to 24-14 during a six-minute period when FIU threatened to make it a game again. But UL's defense forced a punt with three minutes left in the half, and Broadway led a 66-yard drive in only eight plays and scored himself on a four-yard run to make it 31-14 at halftime.
On the second play of the second half, he connected with Harry Peoples for a 78-yard touchdown, and the rout was on.
"Getting that score right before half was critical," Hudspeth said on Monday. "They were trying to sneak back in and get the momentum ... that two-minute drive is going to boost his development at quarterback."
Unless Gautier is an incredible healer, he's likely thrown his final meaningful pass for the Cajuns. The broken wrist wouldn't sideline players at most other positions more than a couple of weeks, but not being able to grip the ball is obviously a problem for a quarterback.
"It's an unfortunate situation with Blaine getting hurt," says offensive tackle Jaron "Big O" Odom, "but Terrance is a leader, too."
Gautier's likely headed for surgery this week as soon as his wrist swelling subsides, and it won't be definitely known until then what lies ahead for last year's MVP in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. But he'll be back nearby on Saturday when the Cajuns take on Tulane. Just where isn't certain.
"He's going to be there and going to help me this week," Broadway says. "I don't know if he'll be on the sidelines or in the press box, but he'll be there to help me."
And if Hudspeth gets his way, Gautier's going to see playing time somewhere before the season's done.
"I'm going to find a role for Blaine," he says. "He's a special young man, and his heart and soul is in this university. This won't be the last time he ties on the cleats this year. He's an athlete and a competitor, and I'm going to find something for him. We're going to put him at safety first because he understands coverages and reading the quarterback's eyes and body language, and he's not scared at all. If that doesn't work, we'll try something else. He'd play left tackle if that's where we needed him to play."
Hudspeth told Gautier of that plan Sunday night prior to the Cajuns' team meeting, about 24 hours after the pasting of FIU.
"He looked at me like, 'you serious, coach,' and I said I was dead serious," Hudspeth says. "He was genuinely excited."
QB SHUFFLE: Even with Broadway proving a deft replacement for Gautier, the loss of the senior creates a shuffle in the quarterback slot. Senior Brady Thomas, who has seen only limited duty in three years and was 2-for-2 throwing for 30 yards last year, becomes the No. 2 man. He already serves as holder for Brett Baer's placements and as protector on punts.
"Brady's definitely our number two," Hudspeth says. "He's a senior, and he can come in and manage the game if we need. He's already taking on 300-pound guys on the punt team, and we know he'll be able to execute well if we need him."
Also moving up will be true freshman Brooks Haack as the No. 3 QB. Until now, Haack has been better known as the younger brother of Cajun softball standout Matte Haack, and part of a strong group of freshman quarterbacks that also includes Teurlings Catholic product D'Shaie Landor and Carencro product Jalen Nixon.
"He'll get the reps with the threes, but that's not saying we've put him ahead of anyone," Hudspeth says. "We had to decide on a third for right now, and physically he may be more ready for that situation if needed. We're going to prepare him, and I expect him to prepare like Terrance has been preparing."
WHERE'D EVERYBODY GO?: Attendance on Saturday was 21,109, the lowest since Hudspeth took over as head coach prior to the 2011 season. And he noticed.
"We underachieved as a football team two weeks ago at Oklahoma State," Hudspeth said Monday, referring to UL's 65-24 loss to the Cowboys in Stillwater, Okla. "This past week, our fans underachieved ... not the fans that were there, but those that weren't there were just like we were two weeks ago. Now, with Tulane coming to town, an in-state rival, we have to make sure our fans show up full force."
The threat of weather was apparently enough to keep many home, despite the fact that the Cajuns have won six in a row at home -- they still haven't lost at Cajun Field under Hudspeth -- and were facing the team that was the coaches' preseason pick to win the Sun Belt. And it never even drizzled at the stadium after 3:30 p.m., a full two and one-half hours before kickoff.
Ironically, the very thing that impressed officials from at least two different bowl games last year -- UL's home attendance average, which barely missed the 30,000 mark -- hasn't been there for the Cajuns' first two games. The home average is down to 23,456, and don't think that bowl folks won't look at that again this year despite UL's stellar turnout for last December's New Orleans Bowl.
To that end, Hudspeth threatened drastic action for the weekend.
"If 35,000 aren't in that stadium on Saturday," he says, "I'm going to call time out and I'm going to go up and down Johnston and Ambassador Caffery with a bus and I'm going to load up people and bring them back here. we'll burn two or three times outs if we have to.
"Building a championship program is a process, and part of that is the fan level of commitment, everybody that touches this program has to continue to strive, and I have no doubt that our fans are going to show up in droves this week. It'll be an unbelievable atmosphere."
BOY, HAVE THEY STRUGGLED: Tulane comes in for this week's Homecoming game with an 0-4 record, but that doesn't adequately describe the Wave's problems. Injuries in the still positions that rival the Cajuns' losses have created an anemic offense (apparently Tulane didn't have the Cajuns' depth), one that ranks dead last among the nation's 120 FBS teams in rushing offense (five total yards per game), total offense (187.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (8.0 points per game). Tulane also ranks next-to-last nationally in passing efficiency and second-from-last in sacks allowed.
But the Wave also ranks 118th out of 120 teams in rushing defense (giving up 260 yards per game) and scoring defense (allowing 42.8 points per game).
The Cajuns were installed as a 23-point favorite on most major Vegas betting lines early Monday, and that had already jumped to 23 1/2 by Monday night.
The Cajun players are well aware that Tulane got thumped 63-10 by state and Sun Belt rival UL Monroe on Saturday at the Superdome, so Hudspeth was in damage-control early to make sure the Cajuns weren't taking anything for granted.
"We had a 45-minute meeting Sunday just on Tulane and the importance of this football game, the importance of doing our job for Homecoming," he says. "I know they got the message from me on how they're expected to prepare."
During that meeting, Hudspeth read aloud the scores of many of the previous games between the teams going back to 1911. Some of those early scores prior to 1930 were lopsided as Tulane won the first 16 meetings between the teams -- 96-0, 74-0, 73-0, 79-0, 60-0 and 84-0 among them. Even as recently as 1998, the Cajuns suffered a 72-20 loss to the Wave.
"We've taken our lumps on most of those," he says, "and the whole thought process was that we're determined to change that mindset. For them to come in here and knock us off would make their season, so there will be a point of emphasis all week that this is Tulane, an in-state school, and no one is looking past this game."