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Football: So much will be so different as UL returns to Cajun Field

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Sept. 25, 2020

When the UL football team plays its first home game this season – the Ragin’ Cajuns face Georgia Southern in an ESPN2-televised game Saturday morning – so much will be so different.

Now at No. 25 in the Amway Coaches Poll and No. 19 in the AP Top 25, the Cajuns will be playing at Cajun Field – open since 1971 – as a nationally ranked team for the first time in program history.

The last time before this season UL was ranked was in 1943.

Related:How to watch Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns vs. Georgia Southern football

The Cajuns – who opened with a 31-14 upset victory at then-No. 25 Iowa State, then followed that up with last Saturday’s 34-31 overtime win over Georgia State in Atlanta – also will be playing at Cajun Field for the first time as a 2-0 team, as they never before have started a season with back-to-back road victories.

hey’ll be looking to open 3-0 for the first time since beginning the 1988 season with home wins over Cal State-Fullerton, Sam Houston State and Rice and a road victory at East Carolina – only to have the streak spoiled by a loss at Louisiana Tech.

And the Cajuns will be playing in front of a crowd capped at 25 percent of the stadium’s 41,426-seat capacity because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics, has infected more than 6.9 million and killed more than 202,000 in the United States alone.

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More:Cajuns still nationally ranked after win that wasn't pretty

“I know it will be a little bit different for a lot of fans,” UL coach Billy Napier said with reference to the smaller-than-usual crowd size.

“I know we will be spread out. I know there will be social distance involved and the seats might not be (like) normal.

“But, at the same time,” Napier added, “I think it will be a good experience for the fans and one that I know our players and staff would appreciate.”

In actuality, even less than 25 percent of maximum capacity will be allowed in the stadium as UL athletic department officials attempt to adhere to recommended COVID-19 social distancing practices.

With the Cajuns having averaged 18,203 per game in announced attendance in 2019, reality suggests that the actual number of spectators permitted will be around half of a typical UL home crowd from a season ago – or perhaps a little less.

The actual number permitted will not be known until game day, a UL spokesman said.

Related:Cajun Field capacity capped, tailgating and alcohol banned at 2020 UL home football games

Whatever the count, though, Cajuns players are simply happy to finally be playing at Cajun Field.

“It’s always fun to play at home – hopefully in front of a few people, however many they let in,” punter Rhys Byrns said earlier this week.

“We started off strong on the road,” receiver Devon Pauley added, “and to get to come back and get a chance to go 3-0 on our own turf, it means a lot.”

More:Hannah's life spurs Cajuns receiver Devon Pauley

FILLING EVERY AVAILABLE SEAT

The game against Georgia Southern was part of UL’s initial 2020 schedule.

But the Cajuns lost their original four non-conference games because their opponents and/or conferences opted not to play, including ones that were have been at home against McNeese of the Southland on Sept. 5 and Wyoming of the Mountain West on Sept. 12.

UL wound up not playing at all on Sept. 5, and it on Sept. 12 it instead faced Iowa State on the road in Ames, Iowa.

As a result, UL will be playing its latest home opener since 1974.

That year the Cajuns did not start until they traveled to play Tulane in New Orleans on Sept. 14 and McNeese in Lake Charles on Sept. 21 – both were losses – then finally faced Lamar on Oct. 5, a 38-13 loss.

No wonder they are itching to finally get to go now in the friendly confines.

More:Cajuns cornerback Garner was ready for the task at hand

“It’s one of the things we’re really looking forward to and excited about,” Napier said of being home.

“You know, playing football here I think there’s a sense and an understanding that we represent this community. Certainly our university. We want to play … at a level that can make his community proud.

“And my hope,” Napier added, “is that for every seat that is available we would have somebody sitting in that seat. I’m confident we can do that.”

'A PRETTY RESILIENT GROUP'

But will they? And can they do it safely?

Even with reduced capacity, some FBS programs nationwide reportedly aren’t even selling out what tickets are available as fear of the virus hangs overhead for some.

As it is, moreover, the Cajuns expect to be without at least 12 players due to COVID-19 issues – either positive tests or student-athletes in quarantine because it was determined through contact tracing that they were exposed to someone who has tested positive.

That group of 12 includes five usual starters – cornerback Asjlin “A.J.” Washington, outside linebacker Joe Dillon, nose guard Tayland Humphrey, right tackle Max Mitchell and star running back Elijah Mitchell – and a sixth who has started 1 of 2 games this season, safety Cameron Solomon.

Related:Elijah Mitchell among several Ragin' Cajun starters with COVID-19 issues

More:Mitchell leaves no doubt in UL OT win at Georgia State

Humphrey, Solomon, Max Mitchell and Elijah Mitchell all played last Saturday at Georgia State, where Elijah Mitchell ran for 164 yards and two touchdowns including the game-winner.

To mitigate the threat of spread of the virus among spectators, game officials have instituted a series of measures in addition to socially distanced seats – among them no pregame tailgating or other usual activities like a concert near the parking lot and the team’s Cajun Walk to the stadium.

Team members, meanwhile, must balance being home with the need for limited contact with friends, family members and fans compared what was the norm pre-COVID.

Is that even more challenging than traveling in the new coronavirus world?

Napier isn’t sure.

“I know this: We take tremendous pride in playing in our place,” he said. “We spent a lot of time training in there, practicing in there.

“And I think that comfort may overweigh some of the logistical issues with COVID-19 and getting tickets for your family and all those types of things.

“This is a pretty resilient group. They’ll manage it well,” Napier added. “I’ll promise you one thing: We’re gonna show up and play and we’re gonna play physical.”

More:UL outside linebacker Manac among five to watch against Georgia Southern

NO LONGER THE UNDERDOG

How they fare is another matter altogether.

Because as the Cajuns found out the hard way in an overtime game at Georgia State, being nationally ranked is no guarantee that things will go easily.

That may be again be the case for Napier and his somewhat youthful team against 1-0 Georgia Southern, which brings with it a unique modern triple-option offense led by experience quarterback Shai Werts.

“I think just taking the practice to the competitive environment when it counts the most, that’s where we’ve got to grow up a little bit,” Napier said. “Part of that, as a competitor, is getting comfortable when all the chips are  on the line – and I think we’ve got a little bit of that going on.”

Moreover, he added, the Cajuns, with their newfound acclaim, must grow accustomed to “not being the underdog anymore.”

“Teams are gonna be excited to play us,” the Cajuns coach said, “and it’s critical that we keep perspective here – not too high, not too low, stick with our process of getting ready to play and understand that … any team can beat you.”

Related:Cajuns really do have a national ranking to protect

More:UL nationally ranked in both Top 25 college football polls



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