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Previewing No. 21 Texas vs. No. 23 Louisiana

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The Steve Sarkisian era begins with a match-up against Billy Napier’s program coming off back-to-back double-digit win seasons

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Louisiana at Georgia State Photo by Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been sixteen years since the Texas Longhorns and the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns played against one another. If you did the math correctly then, yes, you’re right, it was the 2005 season opener. Vince Young and the Horns were coming off their fourth straight double-digit win season and were preparing for one of the best seasons in college football history.

This time around things is a little different. The only team coming off a double-digit win season is Louisiana. In fact, the Cajuns have reached 10 wins in the past two seasons under head coach Billy Napier with three division titles in the Sun Belt Conference and one conference title.

So athletics director Chris Del Conte isn’t doing new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian any favors with this match-up for Sark’s opener with the Longhorns, but I’m sure when CDC scheduled this game, he was planning on having a highly-ranked Longhorn team in Austin with Tom Herman set to begin fifth season.

Instead, Sarkisian will coach against a former co-worker in Napier, the two having spent time together at Alabama during the 2016 season.

The first thing you’ll hear about Louisiana (probably more than once) is that the team is returning 20 of their 22 starters from last year. The Cajuns finished with a 10-1 record, including a 31-14 victory at No. 23 Iowa State to open the season and ended it with a win against UTSA in the First Responder Bowl.

Offense

Super senior Levi Lewis returns at quarterback for his fourth year as the starter, coming off a 2,274 passing yard season with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His numbers were down compared to his 2019 season, when he threw for 3,050 yards and 26 touchdowns, but played four more games that year than he did during the COVID-shortened 2020 season.

Lewis is a left-handed, dual-threat quarterback with a strong arm but can equally hurt you with his legs, drawing comparisons to Kyler Murray. Last year he averaged 6.1 yards per carry and finished the season with 398 yards and five touchdowns.

While Lewis can obviously turn a broken play into a big gain with his legs, it’s not his first instinct. He shows patience when the pocket breaks down and keeps his eyes downfield.

And when he does decide to run with it, he’ll burn the defense if there isn’t a spy.

New Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has stressed the importance of fundamentals and tackling which will surely be tested by Lewis on Saturday.

The Ragin’ Cajuns did lose their top two running backs from last year, Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, who led the team in rushing yards and touchdowns. Redshirt Sophomore Chris Smith is next in line to take over the backfield duties after finishing fourth on the team in rushing last year with 359 yards and one touchdown.

But outside of Smith, the rest of the running back unit for Louisiana has combined for just 29 career carries. Expect to see freshman Emani Bailey and Montrell Johnson tote the rock in relief of Smith, but offensive coordinator Michael Desormeaux will use Levi Lewis in the run game as well.

Despite a younger group of running backs, the offensive line is experienced, with four upperclassmen and a combined 24 starts in the past two seasons.

Louisiana’s OL allowed just nine sacks in 2020 — less than one per game (0.82 per game to be exact) — the seventh-lowest mark in the nation. That speaks to the stability upfront but also Lewis’s ability to escape pressure. However, they could be without one of their starters for Saturday’s game.

Carlos Rubio, who was their primary left tackle last season, was left off the Louisiana depth chart ahead and is being called questionable with an undisclosed lower-body injury, per the Shreveport Times.

“Typically for us if you don’t practice on Tuesday or Wednesday there’s a good chance we’re not going to play you in the game,” coach Billy Napier said.

Rubio did not practice on Tuesday and was limited in Wednesday’s practice.

If Rubio does not play, left guard Ken Marks will move over to left tackle and thrust redshirt freshman A.J. Gillie into the left guard position. If Gillie starts, it will the first one of his career.

As far as the receiving and tight end units go, the Cajuns are bringing back nearly everybody. The top five leaders in receiving last year are all returning (including Smith) although none of them eclipsed more than 400 yards.

Lewis likes to spread it out between Kyren Lacy, Jalen Williams, and Peter LeBlanc, each recording at least 20 catches and 300 yards last year but Lacy led the team with 28 catches for 364 yards and 4 touchdowns.

The Cajuns also added TCU transfer John Stephens Jr., who only recorded one catch with the Horned Frogs last year but will now help bolster depth at the wideout position.

So while Louisiana’s offensive numbers aren’t overly impressive, they aren’t bringing up the rear of the pack, either.

“They know how to play with each other,” Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said of Louisiana. “You know you can tell that they have been playing together for a while, the way that they move around, the way that they do things offensively. It’s going to be a great game, a great opponent, but we got something on our side of the ball, too. We’re ready for them.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns averaged 11 more rushing attempts than passing attempts last year and I expect them to try and run the ball down the Longhorns’ throat. But Texas is returning an experienced defensive front and had a strong rushing defense last year — if Louisiana is going to pull off the upset, I believe it would stem from a strong performance from Lewis.

Defense

Let’s start with the bad news for Texas.

Napier returns one of the best Sun Belt defenses with the youngest starters being a pair of redshirt sophomores. The biggest strength is their pass defense, holding opponents to just 170 yards per game (sixth lowest in the FBS), and were third in the country with 16 interceptions.

They held Iowa State’s Brock Purdy to 145 passing yards on 35 attempts with one interception and zero touchdowns — Purdy’s QBR in that 31-14 loss was 30.9. The most yards given up in the air last season was 255 to Georgia Southern.

Junior safety Bralen Trahan leads the defense along with corner Eric Garror, combining for seven interceptions last season.

Now, I promised good news. That comes in the form of Louisiana’s rush defense. The following stats are courtesy of Burnt Orange Nation’s own Gerald Goodridge:

  • Gave up at least four yards on 49 percent of opponents carries a year ago (No. 83)
  • Gave up at least two yards on 3rd/4th and 2 88.4 percent of the time. (No. 123)
  • Stopped running backs at the line of scrimmage on just 12 percent of carries (No. 118)

Translation: GIVE THE BALL TO BIJAN.

Or any of the Texas running backs for that matter. I mentioned earlier that if Louisiana was to win, it would come from a career performance for Lewis. Another key for the Cajuns would is Texas into turnovers and three and outs.

Texas can combat that with a healthy dose of runs against a defense that gave up 184 yards per game, ranking 88th nationally.

Let last year’s upset victory of Iowa State in the season opener serve as a reminder that Louisiana will be ready to play on Saturday. The Cyclones out-gained Louisiana in yards but lost the turnover battle and gave up too many big plays.


Final Word: Texas needs to a) establish the run game, b) win time of possession, and c) avoid turnovers. Easy, right?