| ||2011 SEASON IN REVIEW:After spending years wallowing in mediocrity in the Sun Belt Conference, Mark Hudspeth turned around the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns' fortunes around in just one year. |
The former head coach at North Alabama and wide receivers coach at Mississippi State led the Louisiana football program to its best season ever in 2011. After a loss to No. 8 Oklahoma State to open the season (61-34), the Cajuns won eight of their next nine games, including thrillers against FIU (36-31), Florida Atlantic (37-34) and ULM (36-35).
Although they stumbled with back-to-back road losses to end the regular season to Sun Belt champs Arkansas State (30-21) and Pac-12 foe Arizona (45-37), the Cajuns still finished an impressive 8-4, earning them a spot in their first- ever bowl game. They went on to defeat San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl, 32-30, to give the team a school-record nine wins.
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|S 1 vs. Lamar |
S 8 at Troy
S 15 at Oklahoma State
S 29 vs. FIU
O 6 vs. Tulane
O 16 at North Texas
O 23 vs. Arkansas State
N 3 at ULM
N 10 at Florida
N 17 vs. Western Kentucky
N 24 vs. South Alabama
D 1 at Florida Atlantic
QB Blaine Gautier
RB Alonzo Harris
WR Javone Lawson
WR Darryl Surgent
OT Leonardo Bates
OT Jaron Odom
OG Daniel Quave
C Andre Huval
DE Emeka Onyenekwu
DT Cordian Hagans
LB Brandon Johnson
LB Jake Molbert
CB Melvin White
S Jamarlous Moten
PK Brett Baer
P Brett Baer
OFFENSE:The biggest reason for Louisiana's surprise success last season was the effort put forth by its high-powered offense, which ranked third in the Sun Belt in yards per game (380.2) and second in points per game (32.3). The unit showed remarkable consistency throughout the season, scoring at least 20 points in every game.
The prolific offense will benefit from the return of eight starters, none more important than Blaine Gautier, who was one of the Sun Belt's best quarterbacks last season with 2,958 yards and 23 touchdowns, to go along with 652 rushing yards (without sacks) and 3 scores on the ground. If Gautier can continue to be efficient (.628 completion percentage) and protect the football (just 6 interceptions), there's no reason to believe he won't repeat his success or even improve.
Wide receiver Javone Lawson was one of the SBC's most trusted targets a year ago, hauling in 63 catches while ranking second in the league in both yards (1,092) and receiving touchdowns (8). Darryl Surgent also proved to be a reliable outlet for Gautier, especially on the deep ball, finishing with 518 yards (18.5 ypc) and 6 scores.
Though much of the running game was highlighted by Gautier scrambling out of the pocket, freshman running back Alonzo Harris was also effective, gaining 700 yards while scoring 8 touchdowns. Both Harris and Gautier will benefit from an experienced offensive line that returns 4 starters.
DEFENSE:While the defense wasn't terrible in 2011, it oftentimes let the potent offense down, ranking in the bottom half of the conference in both total defense (393.2 ypg) and scoring defense (29.8 ppg). To make matters worse, the Cajuns have lost several of their top-performing defenders, including linebacker Lance Kelley (118 tackles, 3 interceptions), end Bernard Smith (13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and cornerback Dwight Bentley (71 tackles, 3 interceptions).
Though the stars of last year's unit may be gone, the defense isn't completely devoid of talent, with 6 starters returning. Safety Jemarlou Moten is the Cajuns' best returning playmaker, recording 80 tackles and 3 interceptions while starting all 13 games a year ago. Melvin White is also a mainstay in the defensive backfield, and he is coming off a season in which he posted 8.5 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions.
Linebacker Jake Molbert made a solid impression last season with 65 tackles in 8 starts, while fellow starters Brandon Johnson (22 tackles) and Justin Anderson (13 tackles) are far less experienced. The defensive line is the most depleted group from a year ago, with Emeka Onyenekwu (1 sack) and Cordian Hagans (2 tackles for loss) the only returnees.
SPECIAL TEAMS:Brett Baer is one of the few players in the country who act both as his team's primary placekicker and punter. He was nearly perfect on field goals in 2011 (18-of-20) while showing great range with a long of 50 yards. However, he did miss four extra point attempts. He was active in the punting game as well, booting 79 balls for a 40.3 yard average, placing 27 inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Surgent and Lawson split time as the kick returner, though neither averaged more than 21 yards per return. Surgent was more effective as a punt returner, averaging 12.0 yards per return, which included an 87-yard touchdown in the bowl win over San Diego State.
OUTLOOK:Louisiana's turnaround under Hudspeth last year was one of the biggest surprises in the Sun Belt, and while few envisioned the Cajuns' enjoying that kind of success, their emphatic season assured that they aren't going to be sneaking up on anyone this season.
"It's not where you were picked, but where you finish that's important," Hudspeth said."We're working hard to be even better than that, I can promise."
With Gautier and company returning to the offense, the points should continue piling up, but there's significant concern about whether the defense will be able to overcome so many huge losses.
However, Hudspeth injected fresh life into this program, and even if it's not the best team in the conference, it still has a chance at going to its second straight bowl game.
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor