This is a game that I personally have been looking forward to since it was announced, and the two teams have more or less proven my expectations accurate coming into game week. The circumstances that have gotten us here have been less than ideal, but if you told me a year ago that the Blazers and Cajuns were going to play a primetime Friday-night game (albeit on CBS Sports Network) that might sneak the winner into the polls, I’d have a hard time not being enthused about it.
Here’s something interesting – the respective S&P+ rankings. Last season Louisiana finished the year 15th in offensive S&P+ and 66th in defensive S&P+; this season they are currently ranked 25th and 66th in those categories, or 16th and 45th if you count only active programs.
UAB finished 2019 ranked 119th in offensive S&P+ and 28th in defensive S&P+; this season they rank 102nd and 19th in those same categories, and again 71st and 8th if you count only active teams. My point here is that these teams are consistent, playing about the same football at the same level this season as they did last season.
If we want to extend the rankings a bit, this is technically #32 Louisiana versus #35 UAB, and in this ludicrous-speed season, why the heck not? That said, both of these teams would be comfortably ranked if not for their lone loss apiece, so perhaps those lone blemishes can tell us something about what to expect.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
In their last outing against Coastal Carolina, the Cajuns played well, they just didn’t quite play well enough, and I can’t help but wonder if they underestimated CJ Marable and the Chants a bit.
The defense didn’t force a single turnover, allowed the Chants to convert nine of fifteen third downs, and saw three of five CCU scoring drives to last for 10+ plays. The offense was led by Levi Lewis in an efficiency-over-volume approach similar to what worked against Iowa State, but Lewis’ only turnover was an interception that allowed Coastal to start a scoring drive at the Louisiana 26-yard line on the last play of the third quarter. That turnover alone meant that the Chanticleers could dominate time of possession two to one and sneak out with a win.
This is the best defense the Cajuns have faced since Iowa State. Louisiana won that game 31-14, but that included 14 fourth-quarter points that came on a punt-return touchdown and a Trey Ragas touchdown run on the next-to-last play of the game.
I’ll be curious to see if the Cajuns can have their usual rushing success against a team with a strong defense and a bunch of film to study in preparation. The Blazers defense has already tallied 15 sacks from 12 different players and another five interceptions in five games, so a talented, active defense is on the books for a Louisiana offense looking to stay on track on Friday night.
The Fightin’ Trogdor’s lone blemish came on the road against Miami, arguably a more impressive loss than Louisiana’s. UAB scored first and only trailed 17-14 with six minutes left in the third quarter before allowing Miami two scoring drives to close out the quarter with a 31-14 lead they would keep to the end.
Louisiana won’t be the toughest offense or defense the Blazers have faced, but it will be the toughest defense that freshman quarterback Bryson Lucero has faced since he didn’t step in fully as the starter until after the Miami game.
He has looked a bit uneven in his last two outings, tossing four interceptions in 60 pass attempts, but he also has the good fortune of having Spencer Brown in the backfield, a man with three 100-yard rushing games this season who currently sits 10th in the nation in rushing.
Sure, he only managed 22 yards on 13 carries against Western Kentucky, but he still scored a touchdown, and the rest of the running backs (Jermaine Brown Jr., DeWayne McBride, and Tyetus Smith-Lindsey) combined for two runs of 30-plus yards and a collective 17 carries for 201 yards.
While UAB’s offense has struggled, don’t expect a lot of pressure from the Cajun defense. In four games they have a total of four sacks from two players and only a single interception. The Blazer offense might not rate highly in S&P+ but it can certainly hold on to the ball and run the stuffing out of it.
The Cajuns are only four games into their season and they are already 2-1 in one-possession games, with their last three games decided by a total of eight points. They could be 1-3 just as easily as 3-1 and they now face the best defense they’ve faced so far this season. If it only took a single poorly-timed interception from Lewis to cost them the game against Coastal Carolina, how do they fare against a much better defense?
On the flip side, this offense is more of a test than UAB has seen recently, and they’ll need to do a better job against Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell than they did against UTSA’s Sincere McCormick in order to come out on top. Lucero may not get forced into many errors by the Cajun defense, but he’ll still need to avoid the self-inflicted ones to make sure the Blazers gain and maintain control.
Final Score: UAB 27, Louisiana 21