By Alexander Haynes
After a fervent bye-week of rehabilitating and strategizing to get ahead of their upcoming Sun Belt opponents, the Texas State Bobcats will return to the gridiron against the battle-tested Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. Battle-tested; however, has come at a cost for Louisiana, suffering a 56-14 loss to the first ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and a 56-10 loss to Mississippi State. They were thrown into the proverbial fire of Southern-football pride in the Power Five and came out, predictably, worn down. Yet, important for the upcoming game, seeking to prove those opponents have refined them to attack the Sun Belt with equal passion. Louisiana may not have an impressive slew of statistical points, but they have a conglomerate of experience, film, and physicality personified by their offense. Saturday’s 6PM home-defense of Bobcat Stadium is staging to be a test of physicality notated by which team has ascertained more in the past weeks – Texas State from a week of rest, or Louisiana from weeks of Power Five competition.
Texas State Bobcat Headlines
The gripping headline began in quarter one of the 25-21 loss to UTSA and has continued well into this week: who will start at quarterback for Texas State. Jaylen Gipson entered the game immediately preceding Willie Jones’ injury then two drives later was replaced by Tyler Vitt. Moving forward, the perception is Jones and Vitt will be the two main quarterbacks playing. However, Head Coach Everett Withers allowed room for change with the coy statement, “Jones will be one of three quarterbacks playing for us on Saturday.” Hence, gameday’s showcase and results will only curate more curiosity into the young quarterback group.
The second offensive headline is the running back utilization, or lack thereof. After running backs received a combined 10 carries in the UTSA matchup, the merits of an athletic offense through the ground were questioned. The punctuating note was the quarterback draw called on their own side of the field; a play which resulted in a safety and a deadly-silent ending to the matchup. Again, when questioned about the run-game utilization, coach Withers responded with a coy and cliché, “Depends what works. If it is pass, we will pass. If it is run, we will run.”
Lastly, the overall health became a rapid concern during the bye-week. It ought to be a notated reminder that during the bye-week, players will reveal injuries and take the time to, “become injured” (for a lack of better terms) to take full advantage of the off-week. Under that notation, the list of injured players included: Jones, Caleb Twyford, Dean Taylor, and Kameron Jemison, all players in extensive roles. Furthermore, there also must be the notation that football is a physical game; players always have lingering injuries they are managing, reported or not. In summation, team health may or may not be an unfortunate headline moving forward, quickly becoming something to, at minimum, keep cataloged.
Two players received national accreditation from Pro Football Focus this week. Tight end Keenen Brown was given honors as the highest-rated tight-end in the nation through five weeks, as well as a near impeccable 94.5 grade for his nine-catch performance against UTSA. Linebacker Frankie Griffin earned a 92.1 grade from Pro Football Focus, landing on their National Defensive Team of the Week with eight engaging tackles and one forced fumble against UTSA.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns Headlines
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns are riding a string of brutal beat-downs. Amidst their tumble with the Power Five schools mentioned earlier, they lost to Coastal Carolina 30-28 with the go-ahead touchdown being scored on a quasi-flea-flicker. The 1-3 start to the season has been far from the ideal picture of what first-year Head Coach Bill Napier had in mind.
Napier was hired in 2018 thanks to his personable attitude and chess-like offensive strategy which combined for a firework show at Arizona State. Pushing the Arizona State offense from 94th to 54th in the nation exemplified his ability to create unique strategies on the skill sets of the players under him. Before Arizona State, he was the University of Alabama’s wide receiver’s coach (coached now NFL players Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper, and ArDarius Stewart), Colorado State’s Assistant Head Coach, Clemson’s quarterback coach, offensive coordinator, recruiting coordinator, and the quarterback’s coach at South Carolina State.
The extensive resume and breadth of knowledge from around the nation were major reasons for the Louisiana crowd to be enthralled by the new coaching hire. However, for all of Napier’s offensive magnetism, the defense has been a glaring flop. They have played the number one team in the nation, but the numbers and film tell the tale of a defense lacking identity. Allowing 39.8 points per game, a 66.3 percent completion percentage, and grabbing only .5 turnovers per game are numbers to groan over – those numbers under the tenant of opponents running only 67.8 plays per game (ranked 54th least, coincidentally tied with Texas State) are egregious. The defensive picture at Louisiana is a precise picture of when a new coordinator, Ron Roberts in this case, must insert a bevy of inexperienced players during a turnover year.
While the defense may have to wait for young talent to build on the adage of experience, the offense has truly inspiring young talent operating at will. Sophomore running back Trey Ragas is the Sun Belt’s leading rusher at 407 yards, 7.9 yards per rush, and three touchdowns. Last season he was an athletic nightmare; this season, he has added strength and a reckless physicality. He is gashing defenses with a hard foot plant and cut in the turf, owning the field as his progressive running style sends turf pebbles and artificial grass flying behind him, a sort of fire out of his own engine.
Ragas’ warrior style is the marching tune of the Ragin’ Cajuns offense. The team has averaged 204.5 rushing yards per game, and 5.9 yards per carry. Their offensive line is a combination of juniors Kevin Dotson, Rico Robinson, and Ken Marks paving concrete street paths for whomever is in the backfield. Those three alone weigh a muscle-engraved 913 pounds while the rest of the starters average a weight of 312 pounds, the SEC average from 2017.
The passing game has not been a firework’s show, averaging only 7.03 yards per pass and 179.25 yards per game. Rather, Senior quarterback Andre Nunez has been hyper-efficient, completing 70 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and three interceptions (two against Alabama). When playing and healthy, Nunez has been a calm leader, plodding the offense along with witty throws and the occasional big-gain to junior target Ja’Marcus Bradley (four touchdowns).
Louisiana is a team progressing and attempting to rise in the Sun Belt. The 2018 season may not be their year due to the youth on defense. The offense, by contrast, is built with physicality, dynamism, and creativity – a self-realized bowling ball.
Scheme, Players, and Game Flow to Watch For
Louisiana has outscored Texas State 134-47 in their five matchups, winning all five, and carrying the goal of pouring points early into Saturday. With the 2018 iteration of Louisiana running on physicality, the summative theme will be how well Texas State responds with their own physicality and fit-to-run. Again, this is a game about who learned more from their recent experiences.
To curate the perfect mix of responsive football, the Texas State defense has a responsibility to force the run to die on first and second down, putting Nunez in awkwardly long third-downs. He prefers to operate on efficient routes (curl, quick-slants, three-step cuts) that do not allow cornerback to interfere; quick-tempo calls after the defense has been lulled in by Ragas’ pounding. On long third-down passes, Napier will have to extend toward the part of the playbook the offense has been unable to operate comfortably.
The battle between the Texas State defensive line and the athletic giants of Louisiana is a fundamental part of the game outcome. Between Taylor, Ishmael Davis, and Caeveon Patton, the 3-4 front needs to create linebacker flow every single down with crashes. Instead of merely chasing the flow of the play, misdirection and redirection will force the blocking patterns off their desired pull concepts.
Ragas or the other onslaught of running backs do not operate behind rocket-science but the tradition of counter-traps. The one ‘trick’ Louisiana uses is the shotgun or pistol formation on most of their plays, including the smash-mouth counter concepts (opposed to the traditional counter-run being called from I-formation). They pass well enough to keep defenses honest, then run a pin and pull strategy up front. For example, if the called run is to the left, the left tackle and guard will pin down on a linebacker or defensive lineman (pending on formation), leaving the left-outermost defensive rusher to be met by the right guard pulling with the passion of a raging bull.
If a pesky linebacker is cheating into the box, a trips motion call is an example of how Napier has given his running backs an extra step. Coming to the line in trips right, a wide receiver will motion across the set to simply pull a linebacker one-step, one eye-glance, away from the right. Upon snapping the ball, the extra tight end added to an already overwhelming offensive line creates a scrum up-front, allowing the running back to contra-step left, then cut back right with the sole job of finding the dark crease to positive yardage.
Crashes where the defensive line consumes the attention of a lineman may look like a bad play, but by consuming attention for three seconds, a linebacker is not consumed and has quick access to the backfield. If the defense operates to assignment, Bryan London and Griffin could be set as team leading tackles once again.
Offensively, Texas State will be led by Jones or Vitt. Regardless of who the leader is, the offense runs best under a balanced approach, running establishing rhythms between the guards and the passing game an extension thereof. With Twyford set to return to the lineup, the running back screen will be a recurring play call to extend the run-game into the passing game.
Brown should be a continuous target for the offense on the rest of the season, coach Withers stating, “we have that [Brown] vertical threat to affect the mike and will linebacker.” Once the short-passing game begins engaging the defense, motioning Brown around will distract a young linebacker corps, thus allowing for wide receiver Hutch White to operate on the outside of the field. A physical matchup to begin, but a physical matchup predicated on intelligence.