Napier after Cajuns loss: 'We’re gonna live and learn'

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

Time to regroup.

The 4-2 Ragin’ Cajuns have no other choice but to do just that after falling 17-7 on ESPN2 Wednesday night to 5-0 Appalachian State, their Sun Belt Conference nemesis.

An ESPNU-televised visit to 3-3 Arkansas State on Thursday night awaits, and if UL has any hope of repeating what it did last season — earning a rematch with App State in the Sun Belt championship game after losing to the Mountaineers in the regular season — it must get its act back together quick.

“We’re gonna live and learn from this experience,” said Cajuns coach Billy Napier, whose club’s four-game win streak was snapped with the loss, “and we’re gonna turn the page here one week at a time going forward and try to get back in position and compete for the Western division like we did last year.”

Breakdown:UL stonewalled again, falls to Appalachian State

UL running back Trey Ragas is stopped trying to stretch into the end zone during Wednesday night's 17-7 loss to Appalachian State at Cajun Field.

In 2018, UL was 3-3 after six games. It also opened 1-1 in Sun Belt play, just as it is now.

But the Cajuns went 4-2 down the stretch (including the first loss at App State), won the Sun Belt’s West Division and made it into the league’s inaugural title game.

Now, even after its defense showed up Wednesday but its high-powered offense did not, they seem to feel as if there’s no reason they can’t win the West again.

That’s the case even as they prepare to face an Arkansas State team that opened with a home loss to SMU, beat UNLV in Las Vegas, was shut out at Georgia, beat FCS Southern Illinois, won its Sun Belt-opener 50-43 at Troy and, most recently, lost 52-38 to Georgia State in Atlanta.

“We’re down right now,” outside linebacker Kris Moncrief said after his 2.5-TFL game, “but we’re looking to bounce back easily.”

“We knew this team (Appalachian State) has beaten us multiple times over the past few years, and we just wanted to come out and show our fans a good game and go out with a W,” inside linebacker Ferrod Gardner added. “It didn’t happen like that, but we’re gonna come … and put our heads down and go to work.”

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The Mountaineers indeed have beaten the Cajuns seven times now in seven all-time meetings, all coming since App State joined the Sun Belt in 2014.

But, much like last year’s 27-17 regular-season loss, Napier left Wednesday’s game feeling more proud of his outfit than discouraged by it.

“That’s a good football team,” he said of Appalachian State, an opponent that’s won 11 in a row dating back to last season and one for whom Napier has “much respect.”

“You know, those guys know how to win. And there will be a day when we have that type of team.”

For now, however, Napier’s Cajuns still have not figured out how to always put it all together on the biggest of stages.

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Yes, they did win at UL Monroe to close the 2018 regular season and get to the championship game.

But after losing in it, UL also lost to Tulane at the Cure Bowl in Orlando on a December day in which its defense did not get the job done.

On Wednesday night, the Cajun defense was solid and then some most of the night — allowing the Mountaineers touchdowns, both ending with 7-yard runs by quarterback Zac Thomas, on only a seven-play, 95-yard drive in the second quarter and a 19-play, 97-yard drive than chewed up more than 10 minutes of clock in the fourth.

“Outside of the big-play pass that we gave up and a couple zone-read miscues,” Napier said, “we basically shut them down in the first half.”

The Cajun offense, however, sputtered much of the night, producing just 254 yards, well off the 540.0 it was averaging going into the night.

UL also ran for just 123 yards, well below the national-high 314.0 it had been averaging.

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“We weren’t at our best,” quarterback Levi Lewis said, “and it showed.”

Not in rhythm early, Lewis suggested the Cajuns were more worried about scoring than methodically stringing together first downs.

Consider it a lesson learned.

“Games like this make us better,” said Lewis, who took no comfort in keeping things close.

The offensive woes were shouldered largely Wednesday by Napier, who credited the Mountaineer defense but also seemed to accept responsibility for some of his own play-calling.

“Certainly we’ve played really good offense at times here this season,” he said, “and (Wednesday) was not one of those nights.

“I feel like I could have done my job better, and that’s what I told the players. So I think the key to the drill here is how we respond, what are we gonna do going forward.

“We’ve got to live and learn from this experience — the good, the bad and the ugly,” Napier added. “Adjust. Evolve. Adapt. Then, one week at a time going forward, we’ve got to play better.”

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One particularly tough pill for Napier to swallow was a fourth-and-goal from the 2 situation in the second quarter that ended with running back Elijah Mitchell being stopped at the 1-yard line.

A Trey Ragas run for no gain, an incomplete pass and a Ragas rush for 1 yard preceded the Mitchell run that went nowhere.

“I’m gonna lay in bed thinking about that one, for sure,” Napier said.

Eventually, though, the Cajuns coach knew he’d have to rise to face another day.

“It’s not gonna define us,” Napier said of the loss. “All of our goals are still intact, and we’re gonna move forward, try to get a little better each and every week the rest of the way.”

As Napier sees it, the Cajuns really do have no other choice.

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