Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
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.
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
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
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.
The Sports Network