Scott Symons kept busy during the summer leading into his first season as Liberty defensive coordinator. In addition to constantly assessing his unit, he spent countless hours studying film for the Flames’ 11 upcoming opponents.
His time spent evaluating Louisiana — Liberty’s opponent Saturday in Lafayette, Louisiana — consisted of breaking down the Ragin’ Cajuns’ three-pronged rushing attack and the veteran offensive line that can create running lanes with ease.
Then he watched quarterback Levi Lewis during Louisiana’s loss to Mississippi State last weekend. While Lewis didn’t run much, Symons saw the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Lewis using his feet to escape the pocket when plays broke down.
“It’s a problem when you’ve got basically four running backs that can beat you,” Symons said.
Louisiana’s ability to control the game with its stable of running backs and dual-threat quarterback is Liberty’s defensive focus heading into the 7:30 p.m. matchup at Cajun Field.
“The zone read presents a problem,” Flames coach Hugh Freeze said. “Last week, [Syracuse] ran a lot of zone game, and we really chased it hard and we really shut it down. But we chased it hard because we wanted [SU quarterback Tommy DeVito] to pull it, and that’s just not who they are.
“This guy [Lewis] will. So it’s a totally different dynamic. This guy will pull it off the zone reads, which makes it more difficult to defend.”
The Flames (0-1) didn’t let the Orange get into a rhythm running the ball, holding a Syracuse team with two talented running backs (Moe Neal and Abdul Adams) in check until Neal found a crease on a fourth-and-2 run for a 42-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
That run picked up more yardage than Liberty allowed in the first quarter (32) and third quarter (38).
“They realize how good they probably could be,” Symons said of his defense, “ … and I think we have a lot of growth still in front of us.”
Symons referred to Louisiana (0-1) as a “big-time challenge” for his unit. The Ragin’ Cajuns return three running backs who combined for 2,920 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns last season.
Trey Ragas, Raymond Calais and Elijah Mitchell were limited to 174 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries last weekend against Mississippi State, so Louisiana was forced to go through the air with Lewis more often because of the Bulldogs’ lead during the game.
But when the Cajuns are playing with a lead and the trio is in sync, the offense is one of the most dangerous in the nation.
In five games last season, a pair of Louisiana running backs rushed for 90 or more yards each. One of those games, against New Mexico State, featured all three backs eclipsing the 90-yard mark.
“When you’ve got those running backs, why not hand it to them every play?” Symons said.
Lewis threw for 267 yards, one touchdown and one interception on 24-of-39 passing and added a rushing touchdown against Mississippi State.
The junior signal caller finished with minus-10 rushing yards on six carries. MSU created pressure up front and harassed Lewis throughout the game. One play resulted in Lewis losing 23 yards midway through the first quarter.
Freeze compared Lewis’ athleticism and ability to escape the pocket against a pass rush to that of Malik Willis, who is now at Liberty after transferring from Auburn.
“As a defense, we’re going to make sure we stay disciplined,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Amarii Jenkins said.
The Liberty defensive line, a bright spot in the loss to Syracuse, could have an even bigger impact against Louisiana.
Cajuns center Cole Prudhomme was injured in spring practice, and left guard Ken Marks suffered a season-ending injury against Mississippi State. With a rotation already in place at left tackle, the left side of the Cajuns’ line could be vulnerable against sophomore defensive end Austin Lewis and nose guard Ralfs Rusins, who had a career-high nine tackles against the Orange.
“Saturday will be interesting to see how the game unfolds,” Symons said.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.