On one hand, you have the UL Ragin’ Cajuns.
Coach Billy Napier’s program isn’t exactly new to the Sun Belt Conference championship game.
In fact, the Cajuns are in their third consecutive one … as hungry as a team can be to finally win one after two losses to Appalachian State.
On the other hand, there’s the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.
No one outside of their locker room thought coach Jamey Chadwell’s program could actually replace the Mountaineers as the East Division champions.
In their first three seasons in the Sun Belt, Coastal was 3-9, 2-6 and then 5-7, 2-6 in 2018 and then 5-7, 2-6 a year ago. Coastal was picked to finish dead last in the preseason Sun Belt coaches poll.
Yet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Brooks Stadium in Conway, South Carolina, the No. 9-ranked Chanticleers will host the No. 17-ranked Cajuns for the Sun Belt crown on ESPN as the nation’s only 11-0 football team.
“Our team has played well all year long and earned an opportunity to obviously host it, and one that our team is looking forward to,” Chadwell said. “We know that we have our work cut out for us, Louisiana is well coached and got great players, and one it’s a big challenge but I know our team will work hard this week to go out and play our absolute best to try to bring home this championship.”
The winner could find its way to a New Year’s Day Bowl game if Tulsa can knock off Cincinnati in the American Association championship game. If not, UL would likely play in the Camellia Bowl on Christmas Day and Coastal the Cure Bowl on Dec. 26. The official announcement will be made late Sunday morning.
When the Cajuns (9-1) traveled to Coastal last season, it was UL’s best overall performance of an 11-3 season. The Cajuns won 48-7 with a 30-14 edge in first downs and 564-236 bulge in total yards.
Quarterback Levi Lewis was 30-of-37 passing for 339 yards with three touchdowns. The Cajuns didn’t punt in the game.
When Coastal beat UL 30-27 two months ago, the total yards were almost dead even, 414-413.
“I think Coastal has been a real consistent team,” Napier said. “I think that’s one of the things that I’ve got a lot of respect for. They’ve played well the entire year, they’re leading our league in scoring offense, scoring defense, they’re really good in the kicking game.”
The most obvious difference is freshman quarterback Grayson McCall, who has thrown for 2,170 yards and 23 touchdowns with only two interceptions and run for 473 yards and six more scores.
“Well, there’s not many things he can’t do,” Napier said. “The guy’s a big tall very effective passer. He’s extremely accurate. He’s a really good athlete, not only in the option game, but also has an escape, extend, scramble quarterback.
“I think he’s got a good understanding of their offense. He can work his way through progressions. He finds the third, fourth and fifth option quite a bit.”
The offense controls the clock like few offenses in America. In the first meeting at UL, the Chanticleers possessed the ball 38:33 to 21:27 for the Cajuns.
“Their offense is real good,” UL senior offensive lineman Ken Marks said. “They sustain drives, so for us as an offense, we have to stay on the field and we have to score. If you have a drive and you don’t score, they’ll get the ball and drive it eight minutes and that’s half of a quarter, so your offensive possessions are limited with their offensive scheme.”
The read-option approach is made tougher to stop because running backs C.J. Marable and Reese White run and catch equally effectively.
“With them, it’s a lot more misdirection,” UL senior linebacker Ferrod Gardner said. “Normally in those type of read-option offenses, there’s like a universal key that you can read. With this team, there’s not a universal key. You have to be in the right spot pretty much every play. Otherwise you’ll get misdirected and taken away from the ball. With this team, everybody has to get to the ball, everybody has to play fast.
“They get on the perimeter quick and they’re really good with their ball fakes. If your eyes are in the wrong place or if you’re slow to be a step outside or a step in the gap, that’s when they gash you and that’s the last thing we need.”
Defensively, Coastal has been a big-play unit with 33 sacks and 70 stops behind the line.
“This is a good defense,” Napier said. “They’re No. 1 in our league and present a lot of challenges. They’ve got mass, length, some instinctive really good signal-callers. I think the secondary is coordinated well. Both corners cover and tackle well, both safeties tackle well.
“They’ve got a high number of variables in front pressures and coverage.
And they’re not on the field a lot, because their offense holds the ball. They’ve done a nice job. They’ve really improved on defense.”
Coastal has also been fortunate. The Chants were one of few teams in America to complete their spring football season prior to the coronavirus shutdown.
They’ve also largely escaped COVID-19 and injury issues. Of the 22 starting positions on offense and defense, Coastal’s had the same starter for every game in 15 of them and for at least 10 games in 20 of 22 spots.
On Monday, Chadwell revealed left tackle Antwine Loper is likely out for this game, while linebacker Silas Kelly and Kendrick Gladney are “wait and see.”
The Cajuns, on the other hand, seem to be as healthy as they’ve been all season.
Offensively, the Cajuns are trending upward. Lewis began running in the first Coastal game – actually UL’s leading rusher in that game with 84 yards.
“Well, we didn’t do a great job of it last time, and I don’t know if you can stop him,” Chadwell said. “You try to do things to contain him. He’s one of the best players in this league no doubt, it’s been that way the last couple of years. The thing that’s happened is they’ve gotten better and better. The receivers have gotten better and better since we played them early October. We’re going to have to do some different things to try to not allow him to beat us with his feet, and that’s where he really gave us issues that time ago.”
The Cajuns actually outrushed Coastal in the first meeting 236-212. That was before the offensive line’s recent upgrade in performance.
“Just play to our level that we know we can play at,” Marks said. “Finish blocks, stay aggressive, go until the whistle is blown and then a little bit after sometimes.”
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