Longtime rival poses challenge for A-State

Arkansas State’s Lincoln Pare looks for running room during the Red Wolves’ loss to Troy last weekend. ASU visits Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.

JONESBORO — The rivalry aspect of this week’s game doesn’t interest Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson as much as his team’s quest to play what he described as “good ball.”

ASU has played Louisiana-Lafayette 47 times, second only to Memphis on the list of the Red Wolves’ most-played rivals. Conference title hopes have often been on the line in recent meetings and emotions have boiled over on occasion.

But with the Red Wolves coming off consecutive four-touchdown losses, Anderson has more pressing concerns than what the teams feel about each other.

“Yeah, we don’t like them and they don’t like us, but it only matters if we can go down there and play good ball,” Anderson said. “We can be as mad at them as we want, but if they’re the ones who have more points on the scoreboard at the end of it, it doesn’t do us any good. We have to keep it in perspective.

“We don’t like them and they don’t like us, but at the end of the day, we have to find good ball. We have to play consistent, good, sound football and give ourselves a chance.”

The Red Wolves (3-4, 1-3 Sun Belt) and Ragin’ Cajuns (5-1, 3-1 SBC) kick off Saturday in Lafayette, La., at 11 a.m. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

ASU has been blown out three times in Sun Belt play this season, including a 45-17 setback at Appalachian State and a 38-10 home loss to Troy in its last two games. Anderson said he saw progress on defense in the second half of the Troy game, when the Red Wolves limited the Trojans to 137 total yards and one offensive touchdown, but no offensive consistency throughout the game.

Faced with bad field position (ASU’s average starting point was its own 17) and finding few big plays in the passing game, the Red Wolves reached the end zone only once.

“We’ve seen that group score points in the past,” Anderson said. “Being able to get back to that, to find ways to help the offense is the challenge this week, and the challenge doesn’t get any easier because obviously Lafayette is built really, really well, won a lot of games, and is going to be plenty talented enough to give you fits basically in every area.”

The Cajuns have won the last two meetings in the series, prevailing 37-20 last year in Jonesboro on the way to an 11-3 finish in Billy Napier’s second season as head coach.

UL Lafayette was nationally ranked for a few weeks after upsetting Iowa State 31-14 to open the season. The Cajuns’ only loss came when Coastal Carolina kicked a last-minute field goal for a 30-27 victory in Lafayette.

UL Lafayette quarterback Levi Lewis has passed for 1,384 yards. The Cajuns have a 1-2 backfield punch in Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, who have combined for 781 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing.

Anderson described the Cajuns as physically the biggest team in the Sun Belt.

“They’ve got size on every street corner down there and they recruit it well,” Anderson said. “They’re really big at every position. They’ve got a quarterback who is tremendously difficult to get on the ground, super quick. He’s really like having another running back because if they run him, he is dynamic. He seems to bail them out all the time when they need it most.

“Both lines of scrimmage, we’re going to be giving up size in a lot of areas, so we’re going to have to do a great job with technical skills and doing what we’re best at. It will start up front. If we can hold point and make it tough for them to run the ball and try to take some of that away from them, that will benefit us. If we can find a way to run the ball effectively, that will, too. It all starts up front on both sides of the ball.”

The Cajuns rank fourth in the Sun Belt in total defense, allowing 375 yards per game. They have yielded just five touchdown passes all season.

ASU continues to lead the Sun Belt in pass offense in spite of its recent struggles. Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher have combined to pass for 2,400 yards and 22 touchdowns. Jonathan Adams Jr. leads the league with 52 receptions for 737 yards and eight touchdowns.

Napier looked past ASU’s recent struggles when asked about the Red Wolves on the Sun Belt media teleconference.

“None of that really matters, what’s happened in the past. You can throw out the records and the stats,” Napier said. “Blake’s a good coach, he’ll have his team ready to play. Much like many teams across the country this year, I know I feel like our team could play much better and I’m sure he feels the same way. We respect what we see on the tape.

“They’ve got an identity on all three phases, certainly good personnel, and lots of height, length, explosive players. We’re going to have to be at our best and try to play our best football here Saturday.”