When former football coach Billy Napier left Louisiana for Florida a year ago this month, it was a changing of the guard. A familiar face, Michael Desormeaux, was hired and put in charge of the program after multiple years of success and national attention by Napier.
Immediately there was a shift in expectations.
New staff, some key players transferred, and a young team was left for Desormeaux. It wasn’t going to be the same UL that had won four straight Sun Belt Conference West division titles and had gone to four straight bowl games. It was going to take the Ragin' Cajuns' best version to achieve what had felt more attainable before.
“We’ve been through the nerves early in the year, we went through that,” Desormeaux said. “The nerves, probably a little bit of doubt at times, things like that. We’ve been through all of that.”
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The Ragin’ Cajuns (6-6) dominated Texas State 41-13 Saturday night on the road to reach six wins and to gain bowl eligibility. It became a symbol of resolve and unwavering confidence for a trying season that featured losses at Rice and Louisiana-Monroe. UL needed to win its regular season finale to continue playing in December.
“I’d say it’s bigger because everybody expected us to go to a bowl game,” senior UL cornerback Eric Garror said. “Everybody knew when we changed coaches how we were going to be. We seen that throughout the season.
“When we found out we wasn’t able to go to the championship, we have to get a bowl game. That was the main goal for the rest of the season. We knew what was happening. Getting a bowl game for this city, this state, it feels good.”
The team as a whole, Desormeaux said, settled in for good the last month of the season as it played its way into bowl contention. Their blue collar identity emerged and there was total buy-in from the Cajun players.
On an individual level, there were a plethora of journeys. Like running back Chris Smith, who missed a couple of games due to injury. Or sophomore quarterback Chandler Fields, who initially won the starting job before suffering an upper body injury a few games into the season and ultimately lost his job.
Passing for two touchdowns with 187 yards in his sixth start of the season on Saturday, Fields leading UL to bowl eligibility meant a great deal.
“Hard work paid off in the dark hours. It was tough for me when I had the injury just to stay positive,” Fields said. “This moment was a get-back moment for that.
“The most important part about our team is we never splintered against each other. We were always together no matter what. We stuck together through all the ups and downs we had. We knew in the end we’d get our sixth win and be bowl eligible.”
That’s the thing about the 2022 Ragin’ Cajuns, there was requirement to grind it out. They had three chances to reach six wins, but it took the final shot to get it. It took plenty of doubt from the outside and a barrage of growing pains inside to celebrate what happened.
“We’ve been down, been sad the last couple of games that we lost,” Smith said. “But to know that we’re going to go out there and get one more (game), it feels great. We’re glad to get it. We wanted to get it against Troy, we didn’t get it then. But we knew we would get one more chance and we took full advantage of it.”
For the fifth straight year, Louisiana will tune in to the selection show on Dec. 4. As Garror said, that was why being in the position was important, doing it for those who came before them in the program and established the expectations.
The belief, in the end, delivered the result.
“I don’t know who we play, where we play, it doesn’t really matter,” Desormeaux said. “It’s going to be about us anyway. We’re excited to get to do it one more time.”
Cory Diaz covers the LSU Tigers and Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns for The Daily Advertiser as part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow his Tigers and Cajuns coverage on Twitter: @ByCoryDiaz. Got questions regarding LSU/UL athletics? Send them to Cory Diaz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: How Louisiana football fought through doubt to reach bowl eligibility