Why Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns football coach Billy Napier loves going for it on fourth down

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Going for it on fourth down, even when conventional wisdom suggests a punt or field goal try may be better, seems en vogue for college football coaches these days.

But UL coach Billy Napier doesn’t just embrace the practice. He and the Ragin’ Cajuns thrive off it.

“They know we’re gonna go for it and be aggressive,” Napier said.

UL (10-1, 7-0 Sun Belt Conference) has gone for on it fourth down 30 times this season – the 10th most attempts nationally going into its regular season-ending game Saturday (3 p.m., ESPNU) against UL Monroe (4-7, 2-5).

The No. 23 Cajuns have converted 20 times – tied for seventh most nationally.

Their conversion rate – 66.7% – is tied for 19th best.

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No scared money

What’s made Napier, who stirred national reaction when earlier this season he said “scared money don’t make money,” so assertive?

One factor is UL lost starting kicker Kenneth Almendares, who was 4-of-5 on field goals, with a season-ending hip injury earlier in the year. Backup Nate Snyder has hit just 3-of-7.

“You can run him out there to kick one,” Napier said, “and it’s not an automatic.”

But there’s more to it.

“It’s just a philosophy we have,” Napier said after UL sparked a Nov. 4 comeback win over Georgia State by going for it while down 10-0. “We’re really big on the value of touchdowns in the red zone.”

It’s somewhat easier going for it near midfield because there’s more field to work with, but riskier too because of field position for the opponent if things go awry.

But that doesn’t prevent Napier from trying it anywhere.

“Obviously we’re playing pretty good defense right now,” he said, “so we feel good about (it).”

It’s in the red zone, though, that Napier really gets aggressive.

He didn’t try it when facing fourth-and-8 at the 12 on UL’s opening drive in its 42-14 win last week at Liberty, and Snyder missed a 30-yarder. But UL went for it twice on the same drive later in the quarter and made it both times, once in the red zone.

Against Georgia State, rather than try a 30-yard field goal, UL got a 13-yard touchdown pass from Levi Lewis to Peter LeBlanc on fourth-and-4.

“We believe in it,” Napier said.

And Cajun players love it.

UL receiver Peter LeBlanc celebrates after scoring a touchdown off a fourth-down pass catch in a Nov. win over Georgia State at Cajun Field.

“It shows Coach Napier asks a lot out of us, that we can get it done in crunch-time,” LeBlanc said.

Billy Napier willing to gamble

Napier very much prefers going for seven points over three.

It’s all about the math.

“Let’s say we kick (two field goals); well, if we would have went for it (once) we would have gotten seven instead of six (points),” he said.  

It’s worth the gamble, as Napier sees it.

That’s especially so with the way Snyder’s been kicking.

Napier’s confidence has increased, too, as the season has progressed. In a 45-0 win over Texas State one outing before the Georgia State game, UL was 4-of-4 going for it.  

“We … really blew the game open as a result of that,” Napier said.

“So, I mean, you can sit around and kick field goals in the red zone all you want. We did that the first year we were here and it cost us a lot of games.”

The Cajuns went 7-7 in Napier’s first season at UL, 2018.

“We believe in it,” Napier said. “So, it’s an approach we’re gonna take. There’s a lot of research that goes into it.”