Fresh off of their upset of Iowa State, Ragin' Cajuns open Sun Belt play on the road against the Panthers
Thanks to excellent defense, a 78-yard touchdown pass, and two scores on special teams, the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns pulled off the first major upset of the 2020 college football season last week knocking off No. 23 Iowa State 31-14. The win secured Louisiana a place in the AP Top 25 for the first time in 77 years (and only the second time in school history). Head coach Billy Napier, one of the hottest names in the business, will lead the newly minted No. 19 Cajuns to Atlanta to open Sun Belt play against the Georgia State Panthers.
Georgia State has yet to take the field this season, but the Panthers are no strangers to season-opening upset victories after knocking off Tennessee 38-30 in 2019 as a 26-point underdog. That win helped spark a seven-win season and a bid to the Arizona Bowl — the second winning campaign in three years under head coach Shawn Elliott.
Louisiana at Georgia State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19, at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana -17
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Louisiana was outgained 303-272 by the Cyclones, with 78 of those yards coming on a single strike from quarterback Levi Lewis to Peter LeBlanc. Lewis finished 13-for-21 for 154 yards and the touchdown, spreading the ball around to seven different receivers, and LeBlanc led the team with five catches and 82 receiving yards.
Though the Ragin Cajuns were limited to just 118 rushing yards on 35 attempts by Iowa State — a meager 3.4 yards per carry — Louisiana is best known for a rushing attack that ranked No. 6 nationally with an average of 257.4 yards per game in 2019 and finished No. 3 in FBS with an average of 6.28 rushing yards per attempt. Trey Ragas gained 49 yards on 14 carries (both team highs) last week, and Elijah Mitchell (46 yards) and Chris Smith (25 yards, plus a 95-yard kick return for a touchdown) give the Cajuns plenty of options.
Mitchell, who was playing at less than 100 percent physically and limited to eight carries last week, led the team with 1,147 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in 2019. Ragas ranked third behind NFL Draft pick Raymond Calais with 820 rushing yards, and second with 11 touchdowns on the ground. Lewis isn't asked to run much (he was credited with -2 yards last week on five attempts, which included three sacks), but can when necessary. Last season, he gained 195 rushing yards and scored three times.
Georgia State ranked No. 119 in the country in rushing defense (217.8 yards allowed per game) last season and surrendered an average of 5.4 yards per carry, which ranked 121st overall. Eight starters return, led by linebacker Trajan Stephens-McQueen (who led the team with 110 total tackles) and defensive lineman Hardrick Willis (the team-leader with 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks), but the unit must show major improvement in order to keep Louisiana bottled up for a second game.
When Georgia State Has the Ball
The biggest stars of Georgia State's 2019 season — quarterback Dan Ellington and running back Tra Barnett, who accounted for nearly 70 percent of the Panthers' 241.6 rushing yards per game — are out of eligibility. Redshirt freshman Cornelious Brown IV, who completed 11-of-28 pass attempts for 130 yards and an interception last year, and junior Destin Coats, who ran for 546 yards, averaged 6.6 yards per carry, and scored seven touchdowns, are next up in those roles and join eight returning starters for the Panthers. Seven of Ellington's top eight receivers are back, led by Cornelius McCoy (70 receptions, 757 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Sam Pinckney (36 receptions, 460 yards, 5 touchdowns). Four starters are back on the offensive line, including All-Conference candidate Shamarious Gilmore at left guard.
Louisiana allowed Iowa State running back Breece Hall to reach the century mark on the ground last week, but the Ragin' Cajuns were solid overall. In fact, the Cajuns shut out the Cyclones in the second half and held star quarterback Brock Purdy to a 45.7 percent completion rate and 4.1 yards per pass attempt — both of which ranked as the second-worst of his 25-game career. Asjlin Washington intercepted Purdy in the third quarter, and linebacker Ferrod Gardner recorded the lone sack for Louisiana. Cornerback Eric Garror scored on an 83-yard punt return. Overall, the Ragin' Cajuns held Iowa State to 4.27 yards per play. In 2019, Louisiana surrendered 5.45 yards per snap.
Not only did Louisiana knock off the rust from a long, strange offseason last week, the Cajuns opened with their first win over a ranked opponent in 24 years and recorded the program's first-ever road win over a ranked team. Now, the two-time defending Sun Belt West champions must turn their attention to Georgia State, which has had a few extra weeks to prepare for the game following the cancelation of previously scheduled non-conference matchups with Murray State and Alabama.
The Ragin' Cajuns deserved to win last week, though Louisiana was also somewhat fortunate to score on three huge plays. Expect to see Napier lean more on the running game against Georgia State, and for the Cajuns to find success doing so.
Prediction: Louisiana 39, Georgia State 21
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(Top photo by AJ Henderson/Sun Belt Conference)