Louisiana and Iowa State kick off their 2020 college football season with an intriguing matchup in Ames this Saturday. This game wasn’t originally on the 2020 schedule, but due the COVID-19 pandemic, both teams had to shuffle their slate and find new matchups this fall. As a result, this contest between the Ragin’ Cajuns and Cyclones is one of the better matchups on a light Week 2 slate.
Under third-year coach Billy Napier, Louisiana is a program on the rise. The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off their best season in program history after winning 11 games and claiming the Sun Belt West Division title for the second year in a row. Napier is 18-10 since taking over in Lafayette and brings back 16 starters for a team capable of clearing its biggest hurdle in the Sun Belt: Appalachian State. Beating the Mountaineers and winning the Sun Belt is the top goal for Napier and his team in 2020, but a win over Iowa State on Saturday would certainly bolster the resume for a potential spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl.
Similar to Louisiana, Iowa State is also trending up entering 2020. Head coach Matt Campbell has guided the program to three consecutive winning records in the Big 12 for the first time in school history. Additionally, the Cyclones are 23-16 with three bowl trips over the last three years. With 14 returning starters in place, Campbell has Iowa State poised to contend for a trip to the Big 12 title game in 2020. Quarterback Brock Purdy is the headliner, but the Cyclones also boast one of the better defenses in the Big 12.
This is the first time Iowa State and Louisiana have met on the gridiron. The Ragin’ Cajuns last played a Big 12 opponent in 2013, losing to Kansas State 48-27.
Louisiana at Iowa State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 12 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa State -11.5
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Louisiana’s 2019 offense finished second in the Sun Belt in scoring (37.9 ppg) and led the conference in yards per play (7.01). Balance in terms of production is the driving force behind those numbers. The Ragin’ Cajuns averaged 257.4 yards a game on the ground and 236.7 through the air. This offense was held under 30 points just three times in 2019 and finished second in the Sun Belt with 10 plays of 50 yards or more. Napier’s offense leaned on its run game (574 rushes to 413 passes last fall), but either area is capable of doing damage.
Most of the main pieces that led the way for Louisiana’s dynamic offense in 2019 are back for ’20, including quarterback Levi Lewis. He connected on 64.3 percent of his passes for 3,050 yards and 26 touchdowns to only four picks last fall. Lewis also ranked second in the Sun Belt in quarterback rating (152.65) and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt. The Louisiana native should be even better in his second full year as the team’s starter, but there are some concerns at receiver. Ja’Marcus Bradley (60 catches) and Jarrod Jackson (25) finished their eligibility, while a few injuries took a toll on this group in the offseason. Jamal Bell (34 catches) was set to be the team’s top returning receiver but is out due to a knee injury. This unit is also missing Calif Gossett and Brian Smith due to injuries, leaving Peter LeBlanc, Jalen Williams, and true freshman Dontae Fleming as the team’s starting receivers according to the depth chart. LeBlanc and Williams combined for 49 catches last fall.
Iowa State’s defense has not finished below third in the Big 12 in points allowed in each of the last three years. Last season’s unit allowed only 5.4 yards per snap, and Campbell’s group could improve on those totals with nine starters back for 2020. All three areas are a strength. Up front, end JaQuan Bailey returns after missing nearly all of 2019 due to a knee injury to bolster a unit that allowed only 4.0 yards per carry last fall. O’Rien Vance and Mike Rose anchor a strong linebacker unit, and the secondary should be one of the best in the Big 12.
Louisiana’s success on offense starts with being able to establish the run with Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas. The offensive line lost a couple of standouts in Kevin Dotson and Robert Hunt off the 2019 group but should still rank near the top of the Sun Belt. Iowa State won’t be easy to move off the ball on Saturday afternoon. For the Ragin’ Cajuns to pull off the upset, they have to win the battle up front and clear running lanes for both Ragas and Mitchell to help ease some of the pressure on Lewis.
When Iowa State Has the Ball
Quarterback Brock Purdy is back to lead the offense after a record-setting 2019 season. The junior is the catalyst behind this unit, setting 18 school records last year, including passing yards (3,982), completions (312), and passing touchdowns (27). Purdy also connected on 65.7 percent of his passes, tossed only nine picks, and scored eight times on the ground. The Arizona native is firmly in the conversation to be considered as one of the top-five quarterbacks returning in college football this season.
Purdy’s supporting cast is going to feature some new faces at receiver and along the offensive line this fall. Considering the unusual offseason, opening with an opponent like Louisiana doesn’t provide an easy off-ramp to work out some of the kinks for this offense. The Cyclones are breaking in four new offensive line starters and must replace two of their top four statistical receivers from last season. The outlook is better at running back. Breece Hall (897 yards) is poised to elevate his game another notch in 2020, and there’s good depth in the form of Jirehl Brock, Johnnie Lang, and Kene Nwangwu.
Louisiana’s defense showed big-time improvement in 2019, cutting down on its points allowed from 34.2 points allowed to 19.7 last fall. This group also surrendered 5.5 yards a snap last season – down from 6.3 in 2018. The Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t give up many big plays (only 13 of 40 yards or more), generated 33 sacks and led the Sun Belt in scoring defense. Some retooling is needed at every level, and coordinator Ron Roberts departed for Baylor. However, with seven starters back, there’s optimism to continue last year’s progress in 2020. Defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill is a key cog in the trenches for Napier but is questionable due to a shoulder injury.
Containing Purdy and slowing Iowa State’s passing game could be the key to victory for Louisiana. Tight end Charlie Kolar (51 catches) and receiver Tarique Milton (35) slide into the go-to roles for Purdy at receiver, supplying experience and talent while the rest of the group sorts out the new faces early in 2020. The Ragin’ Cajuns forced 16 turnovers in wins last year and will need to generate a couple of takeaways to steal a victory in Ames.
Related: Predictions for Every Game in Week 2
Iowa State needed overtime to escape a loss to Northern Iowa in last year’s opener, so a slow start isn’t out of the question here for Campbell’s squad. Louisiana returns 16 starters, a proven and efficient quarterback in Lewis, and a dynamic ground game led by two of the Sun Belt’s top running backs. Considering the experience and proven talent, the Ragin’ Cajuns won’t be intimidated by the road trip to Ames. While Napier and his staff will find a way to keep this game close into the second half, Iowa State’s defense proves to be too much, and Purdy puts this contest away late in the fourth quarter.