Two root canals at halftime in my mouth and one beloved father-in-law very late in the game in Mount Sinai in New York. With those in-progress updates out of the way, the latter of which prevents me from gulping gumbo in Louisiana this weekend’s nights and will keep me from covering this game Saturday, we bring you this week’s pregame blog.
Louisiana-Lafayette wants to be called just “Louisiana.” That is their right. The school also likes their nickname, “Ragin’ Cajuns.” So do I. But “Lou-La” and “the RCs” take up less space, type quicker and I’m all about Shelby speed in getting this thing done tonight.
I’m starting with special teams, which means starting with Louisiana-Lafayette punter/kicker Brett Baer. His performance last year against FIU might’ve been the best game by a punter or kicker I’ve ever seen. FIU felt like it kept taking a right hand from Max Baer – Sr., not Jr., who played Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies – after each punt. Off Baer’s punts, the Panthers started drives at their own 28, 1, 2, 13, 4, 20, 21 and 5. He set the stage for a safety and nailed a 48-yard field goal on the possession after the safety, five points that swung the momentum toward Lou-La. Got a 39-yard field goal, too. He’s leading the nation in field goals per game.
Baer’s still doing his thing. He’s the main reason Lou-La leads the Sun Belt in gross punting, net punting and kickoff return defense. Considering FIU’s troubles returning punts, I’d say go after Baer. You’re more likely to make him alter his punt than you are to break the return.
Coming back the other way, the RCs rank second in the Sun Belt on kickoff returns and third on punt returns. FIU’s stuffed kickoff returns in three of four games and were good on punt coverage against Louisville, aside from the “didn’t he signal fair catch?” punt return.
Now, when the offenses get the ball…
FIU’s chased Blaine Gauthier – could there be a better name for an RC quarterback? – for two years. He’s run for 198 yards in two games. Nobody’s been forced to scramble against FIU so far this season. If FIU’s secondary has turned the corner, maybe the Panthers prefer to keep Gauthier in the pocket and make him throw. He’s not the tallest quarterback, so if FIU starts to get the kind of push they did up the middle on Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, expect Lou-La to start sliding Gauthier outside with a moving pocket or on bootleg passes.
Behind pretty much the same line matchup, the RCs had some of the few RBs who ran successfully against FIU. Also, Lou-La’s 13 for 13 scoring in the red zone and they’re not doing it cheaply – nine touchdowns, four field goals.
Nobody’s really stopped FIU’s run game yet (except on fourth down). Expect Kedrick Rhodes back. Don’t expect Darian Mallary. Rhodes, Mallary and Jeremiah Harden all have it going. That’s what’ll be necessary to help out E.J. Hilliard.
Yes, Louisiana’s had a week to check tape on Hilliard, while he essayed the rule of a true X Factor, an unknown quantity, against Louisville. Expect Lafayette to throw more wrinkles at Hilliard. He might start slowly. Expect a strong finish, however, once he gets settled, especially if the game’s still close and FIU’s running well. Perhaps the most impressive part of last week’s game: Hilliard couldn’t resort to the run. By his second drive, FIU was down 28-14 in the third quarter. They needed something and they needed it fast.
I picked FIU before the season on the basis that this would be a shootout game and would come down to which defense finally made a game-changing play. On the quarterback change, I’m going to back off that a little bit.
Lou-La RCs 35, FIU GP’s 31.
That’s just one black man’s opinion. I could be wrong.