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Football: Foote – Cajuns endure sluggish Senior Day setback

Kevin Foote, The Advertiser, November 22, 2014


You could see the frustration in the face of UL coach Mark Hudspeth as he walked to the podium after Saturday’s humbling 35-16 loss to Appalachian State.

You could hear it in his voice as he tried to explain what just had transpired.

It’s beginning to be a troubling trend and it’s starting to get on his nerves.

And I’m sure many Cajun fans are now getting in that same line these days as well.

It was almost a year ago on Nov. 30 that Hudspeth and the UL faithful endured the same sickening feeling in their bellies.

The Cajuns were riding an eight-game winning streak that came to an abrupt halt with a 31-28 loss to UL Monroe on Senior Day.

Fast-forward to Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. The Cajuns had seemingly put the frustration of their disappointing 1-3 start very much in their rearview mirror with a six-game winning streak.

Not only was another Sun Belt title now well within their grasp, but the program’s first 10-win season was also looking like a very real possibility.

Then came Senior Day.

A very special group of seniors – highlighted by running back Alonzo Harris, defensive linemen Christian Ringo and Justin Hamilton and record-breaking quarterback Terrance Broadway – were honored during pregame ceremonies.

And then the Cajuns responded with an extremely flat first quarter, encored only by an even less impressive fourth period in a three-score loss to Appalachian State.

"We’ve got to do a better job on Senior Night," Hudspeth said. "That’s two years in a row."

That’s true, but don’t forget that it’s really a fantastic finish away from being three in four seasons. In Hudspeth’s first season in 2011, the Cajuns overcame a double-figure deficit in the final three minutes to nip UL Monroe at the wire 36-35.

The big exception was 2012 when UL handled South Alabama 52-30 and followed the game with a New Orleans Bowl invitation celebration at midfield after the game.

So what does all of this mean?

Earlier in the week, Hudspeth suggested that Senior Day is actually more distracting than homecoming. His logic made sense, and frankly the game results back up the claim since he’s arrived in Lafayette.

Broadway and Dominique Tovell both, as expected, denied that Senior Day distractions had any negative impact on the team’s performance.

Their reaction was easy to understand.

After all, how could a little pregame ceremony and a few pats on the back of some longtime teammates really skew a team’s performance that much?

Especially a team that overcame a plane-crash takeoff for a highly anticipated season, only to respond with a six-game winning streak.

Especially a team that has endured way more position changes in a few weeks than most conference championship contenders ever consider in a season.

And especially a team that has seemingly overcome any potential coaching-drama negatives with mystery changes in the staff to dominate five straight Sun Belt foes.

So how do you explain it?

We can point to the musical chairs game time – moved up on Thursday from 4 to 1 p.m. in an attempt to beat the bad weather – but there’s no way of knowing if that led to UL’s lackluster start. And no one would buy that line anyway.

The crowd of 20,638 was frankly, pretty lackluster as well, but to be fair wasn’t ever given many great opportunities by the home team to impact the game.

I think these two recent examples do have a few issues to investigate, however. Against Georgia State, UL was just trying to play well after three straight losses.

Against Arkansas State, it was on national TV against a team that they don’t particularly like that they dominated 23-7 on the road last season and yet some claim still had to share their Sun Belt title with.

Against Southern Alabama, it was the team that beat them down pretty good last year to close out the regular season.

Against ULM, the Warhawks did some talking and dancing during last year’s Senior Day loss, so a score had to be settled.

Was Saturday just a good time, or rather a really bad one, to allow their focus to wander just a bit with bowl talk and 10-win seasons beginning to circulate?

Perhaps the other common factor is the opponent. UL Monroe was awfully fired up last year after the heartbreaking loss at Cajun Field in 2011 and the late Cajun touchdown in Monroe in 2012.

And while the Cajun players likely knew so little about this new Sun Belt team Appalachian State, the Mountaineers knew plenty. They knew that their program – very used to winning at a lower level – is now picking up steam at the Division I level.

And they knew that the Cajuns were the top dogs in the Sun Belt and that a win would be a huge lift in their mission for instant respectability.

I’m just saying folks, I saw two assistant coaches running up the tunnel hugging and completely giddy like they had just won a championship against a big rival. I saw a lot of celebrating as the ASU players and boosters walked by the media interview area after the win.

This was definitely a big feather in their cap.

Of course, sometimes it’s not about all of those intangibles, but rather game plans and schemes. Sometimes, coaches get outcoached. It happens to the best of them every week. And sometimes, players just outplay the opposition.

I definitely saw a lot more wide-open Mountaineer receivers in the secondary than vice versa.

I definitely saw an opponent doing a much better job against the Cajuns in the trenches than any other Sun Belt foe so far this season.

If indeed a shift in pregame strategy by master motivator Mark Hudspeth is in order for next year’s Senior Day, there’s plenty of time to consider that.

The question now is, will the week after this year’s Senior Day disaster be the same as a year ago.

Broadway strongly denied that comparison after Saturday’s loss. He accurately pointed to the big difference with his arm being in a sling after losing to ULM last year, while just his feelings were injured this time around.

While that’s true, UL will be following it up with a trip to Alabama as well this year to meet Troy, a struggling team that will have plenty of motivation with Nov. 29 being the farewell game for their legendary head coach.

Now it’s time to see if the Cajuns can throw that intangible aside, nail down another 8-4 regular season and earn another bowl bid, not to mention cutting off all those ‘backing in’ naysayers at the pass.

Indeed, there should be plenty of motivation come Saturday … without any of the invisible distractions.