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Football: Players meeting works

Football: Players meeting works

Football: Players meeting works

Cajuns credit team talk as turning point

Dan McDonald

Ask most members of the University of Louisiana football team, and they’ll tell you the source of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ late-season surge.
UL was stumbling along at 1-5 at mid-October and had just dropped a 39-36 heartbreaker at Arkansas State after holding a 29-14 fourth-quarter lead. That’s when the 13 senior members of the squad decided a Sunday players-only meeting was in order.

"All the seniors had something to say," said senior wide receiver Bill Sampy. "We felt like we had to step up and talk to everybody, let them know how we felt and that we still had a shot at this thing."

That meeting came before the Middle Tennessee game, one in which the two-touchdown-underdog Cajuns went on the road and pulled off a 13-10 upset. Since then, UL hasn’t lost, and the four-game win streak has the Cajuns within one win of a Sun Belt Conference title and a possible bowl-game berth.
"Things didn’t go well before that," said senior deep snapper-fullback Justin Venable. "We had to make sure everyone still believed we could do this. Since then, there’s been an emotional change in the team."

"I’ve said since day one that this team had strong character," said Cajun coach Rickey Bustle, "and it showed. That was a tough time for us, but character is what got us through."

That character and those emotions will likely be on display Saturday when the Cajuns (5-5, 4-2 Sun Belt) travel to face Sun Belt front-runner UL Monroe (5-5, 5-1 Sun Belt) in a 2:30 p.m. contest at ULM’s Malone Stadium.

A ULM win gives the Indians the outright title and the Dec. 20 New Orleans Bowl berth, while UL can claim a share of the league title with a win and, coupled with an Arkansas State loss at North Texas, would grab their first-ever Division I-A bowl bid.

"It’s going to be emotional," Bustle said Monday. "But we can’t just keep saying we can’t wait until Saturday. There’s a lot of preparation that needs to go on between now and then."

Bustle has preached for five weeks about playing games "one at a time" and not worrying about the big picture, and he said the practice week that begins today won’t be any different.

"There’s no use to change the way you approach it," he said. "You can’t get away from the little things that got you there. I don’t have to tell them that there’s a lot for us to play for … a winning season, a conference championship, a bowl game. The newspapers will, the TV will, their classmates will. We’re not living in a vacuum."

"We know what this means to us as a team," Sampy said, "and not just us. The school, the city … we haven’t been in this situation before."

Venable is in his eighth year of waiting, having earned unprecedented injury hardship waivers from the NCAA in a career that dates back to his 1998 signing. Venable, in fact, is the only holdover from the Cajuns’ period as an independent before joining the Sun Belt.

"It’s exciting to play for something, a ring and a trophy," Venable said. "They (his teammates) don’t know what it’s like not to be in a conference, so maybe it means more to me. I’m just excited to have the chance to play for a conference championship."

Sampy and Venable are among the few Cajuns that can claim a win over ULM. UL’s last wins in the series came in 2000 and 2001, with the Indians claiming the last three meetings.

"I don’t know if they’ve got our number or not," Venable said. "We just haven’t been able to close it out against those guys."

"We’re just going to take it play by play, offense, defense, special teams," Sampy said, but followed with some fateful words. "I can’t wait until Saturday."

Originally published November 22, 2005