Reliability of Noah Cain helps LSU transition through difficult stretch at running back caused by injuries, turnovers

LSU running back Noah Cain (21) rushed for a season-high three touchdowns in Saturday's 41-10 win over UAB. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

The timing couldn’t have been better for LSU running back Noah Cain.

With the team’s leading rusher from the running back position, Josh Williams, out with a knee injury against UAB last Saturday, Cain took advantage of an expanded role with 13 carries for 76 yards and three touchdowns in the No. 6 Tigers’ 41-10 victory over UAB.

While LSU football coach Brian Kelly said Williams, who missed the UAB game, has experienced some progress, he remains questionable for the Tigers (9-2, 6-1 in SEC) who close out the regular season at Texas A&M (4-7, 1-6) in a 6 p.m. contest at Kyle Field.

ESPN will televise the game which can also be heard locally over 98.1-FM.

“I think Noah Cain has helped himself,” Kelly said during his weekly news conference Monday. “He is not flashy. I don’t think he is going to be a guy that makes a ton of people miss, but does he really have to? He plays with low pads, he is physical, he is smart. He catches the ball coming out of the back field. He is reliable in pass protection, and he is tough to bring down. I think I mentioned four or five things that are pretty good to have. He doesn’t have maybe some of those wow factors, but (he’s) steady and physical.”

Kelly expects to be cautious with the potential return of Williams, who carried 91 times for 477 yards and six touchdowns, before missing last week’s game.

Kelly also confirmed ESPN’s report that sophomore running back Armoni Goodwin was lost for the season with a knee injury. Senior running back John Emery Jr., who missed the first two games of this season to complete a 15-game suspension dating to last season, also lost two fumbles during the UAB game.

Cain, a transfer from Penn State, increased his season’s totals to 54 rushes for 296 yards and seven touchdowns, a mark that leads LSU’s running backs. Sophomore defensive back-turned-running back Derrick Davis Jr. filled in during the fourth quarter of his team’s victory with five carries for 28 yards, but Kelly said that he would not play again after hitting the NCAA’s threshold of playing in four games and still being allowed to redshirt.

“(I) Should have moved him there sooner (smiling),” Kelly said of Davis to offense. “I think what we saw is – that was his last game. For the Derek Davis fans out there, you won’t see him again. He is done for the year. But, yeah, we’re pretty excited about his future. We want to preserve the years that he has left, and it doesn’t make sense now to put him in a game and have that be the fifth game. That’s not fair to him. He made a decision to help us out, and we’re going to make sure we help him on his end too.”

Here’s what else Kelly had to say:

(Opening statement)

“As I mentioned, (we) showed great mental toughness (in 41-10 win over UAB) in the way that they were accountable for their play and doing their job. Certainly, a game where, not an SEC opponent, but really liked the way that they prepared and played the game the right way for four quarters and in less than ideal conditions, not a full crowd, coming off of an incredible environment two weeks prior with Alabama. All those things usually equal into a change in the way you think. Their consistent application of the process has allowed them to play each game with a faceless opponent and go out and do their job the right way. I was really proud of them.

(On Texas A&M)

“We take on an SEC opponent, which is well known to all LSU fans in Texas A&M. Certainly when we talk about a talented football team, this is as arguably as talented as a football team as we’ll see all year. They’re young in some areas, but it doesn’t take away from the talent that they have on the field. (Texas A&M coach) Jimbo (Fisher) obviously is an outstanding football coach. I’ve gone against him when he was at Florida State. Certainly, this is their last game, the last one that they play this year against LSU, their rival. They’ll play their absolute best against us, and we’ll have to meet and exceed our play. Devon Achane, the running back, is outstanding. The receiver (Evan Stewart), one of the best in the country. Stewart is a guy that you have to know where he is at all times. Defensively, young and talented, outstanding defensive line, runs to the football. Great atmosphere and one that our football team is certainly looking forward to and has, from our perspective, handled themselves all year in the right way, and we’ll prepare accordingly for an outstanding, talented football team. They don’t have the wins that they wanted, but all they need is one, and that’s to beat LSU. We’ll have to prepare very well and perform well on Saturday against this football team.”

On working Garrett Dellinger back into offensive line rotation?

“Dellinger got some playing time. I thought he contributed nicely to the rotation playing at the guard position. As you know, we started (Marlon) Martinez at the center position. I thought he did a nice job. I think Dellinger’s best position is more comfortable at the guard position than he is at the center position, so we’ll continue to work him in.”

On competing against coach Jimbo Fisher when you were at Notre Dame and he was at Florida State?

“He is talented. He is obviously a great recruiter, and he is talented. He’s had talented football teams every year that I’ve gone against him. Again, the calling card has always been outstanding offenses, the ability to play aggressive defense and just good football teams. You know, they’ve always been great games. We look forward to another great matchup again.”

On the significance of winning 10 games for first time since 2012?

“I don’t think they give you any ticker-tape parades or anything, but 10 wins is certainly a benchmark when people look back on seasons. I think it does a lot in terms of solidifying your postseason opportunities. I think it puts you in a different category, but I don’t think you can go into the season going, ‘We have to get to 10 (wins)’. I think you can go into the season about winning the SEC West. This is important a football game because we want to continue to get better as a football team as we go into the SEC Championship Game. It’s important for us because each week for us we’re building something within our program. As I mentioned, the UAB game may not have been as important to other people outside the walls, but inside the walls, that was a huge game for us. In terms of doing our job, the way the job needs to be done, when it needed to be done, and that was really important for us. That was a big hurdle for us. This is another one. It’s going on the road against a really talented team that has nothing to lose, and you have to play well because they will play up to you. I think we just think more in terms of challenges within the program than particular wins at this point.”

On the challenges of preparing for a road game during a holiday week?

“Well, I think (it’s) the same challenges on the road are there for you. Thursday, we handle a little bit different. We’ll practice in the morning, but we’ll have Thanksgiving dinner together. We’ll bring the coaches’ families in. The players will be with us and share Thanksgiving together. We’ll release all of the non-travel players after practice in the morning so they can be with their families. And then really from there, it just becomes a normal Friday for us where we’ll have meetings at noon and then board the plane around 3:00-4:00 and get into College Station around 6:00. Then it just becomes business as usual.”

On the team’s self-discipline this season?

“We break our team into SWAT leaders, and we rotate that throughout the entire football team. I’ve never been really a believer that there’s just three or four captains, and that’s it. I like rotating leaders. I like that to come from all forms from freshmen, sophomores, juniors. For example, some of our great leaders have been Mekhi Wingo, who is a transfer from Missouri, who is just a sophomore. But we’ve gotten great leadership from, veteran seniors as well in Mike Jones, who is not even in a starting position right now but means a lot to our football team. I think it’s important that everybody serve some kind of leadership role to get the accountability across the board. That’s kind of been for me how you build that accountability and discipline, that personal discipline when you share it throughout the entire football program. And in each class as well.”

Nearly a year through the league, any surprises in SEC?

“No, I think it’s lived up to what I had thought. I mean, it’s difficult. Each and every week is a challenge. And you look at the Arkansas game. You know, we played a team that you saw what they did this past weekend to Ole Miss. You have to play well. You know a lot of people looked at our 13-10 game and said, ‘What’s wrong with them’? There’s nothing wrong with our team. It’s each and every week the challenges that you get in this conference, you better be ready to play. There’s no week off, and that’s exhausting. That’s tiring. That’s why I was so proud of the performance of our football team this past weekend against a dangerous UAB team that can run the football and has an outstanding back (DeWayne McBride). That requires effort. That requires grit and toughness to stop a run team like that. I don’t know that anything has really surprised me as much as I think being in this business as long as I have, I think I’ve gotten to know the SEC and how difficult it is from week to week, and it’s lived up to that.”

On the growth you’ve seen from defensive tackles Mehki Wingo and Jaquelin Roy?

“Mekhi is the same guy every day. In terms of his work ethic, in terms of what he does in the classroom, he brings a great role model to that room on a day-to-day basis. I think J. Roy has really steadied himself in terms of what he has deny on a day-to-day basis on the practice field. He was banged up a little bit earlier in the season, had some back issues. I thought there was some inconsistency early on, but he has really steadied himself to give us really good play here down the stretch. You know when you are better in November, especially at that position, which as you know is a high-contact position, it says a lot about how he has taken care of himself and doing the right things. I think both of them are different players, but I think both of them have really down the stretch here been really important for us.”

On the balance between game preparation and upcoming start to transfer portal signing?

“Yeah, those are ongoing. You have to kind of balance them accordingly through the season. We used a lot of the bye week to kind of get ahead of some of that stuff. Some of it is you have to react, but you are hoping to be less reactionary and much more proactive in that. But I think everybody knows what those dates are, and some of those conversations will have to take place once the window does open up.”

What do you attribute this year’s team being relatively healthy this season?

“So, putting together a team that represents that end goal, and that team is our sports medicine team, it’s our nutrition, it’s our strength and conditioning. It’s all of those. It’s sports science. It’s that whole team working together on a day-to-day basis. It’s educating them and making sure that our players understand that if you want to be better in November, you better have a comprehensive plan that takes 365 days into account. So, January and February and March, you’re not out doing crazy things. What I mean by crazy things, that you are overtraining, but you are training appropriately your football team. So, when you get to these days that you don’t have soft tissue injuries, that you don’t have injuries that keep your kids out of practice. And I think it’s how you practice. Making sure that your players take care of themselves. I can tell you that in our spring we didn’t know how to practice, and we learned how to practice the right way, so we would be at this point and have the players available in the month of November and getting stronger as we went along.”

What do you remember about Harold Perkins’ recruiting process?
“I remember everybody being up in arms when he committed to A&M, and I remember telling everybody to be patient. If we just are patient and keep at it, we’ll see what happens. I think in recruiting a lot of this is, early on here, is just keep at it. Be patient, keep doing it the right way. Keep representing who we are and what our plan is for your development, and you have a chance to get anybody to come here and pull our base. Make sure we know who the great players are in this state. So, I think we’ve done pretty good in making sure that those things are occurring.”

On progress of freshman defensive end Quency Wiggins?

“You know, obviously we’ve made the decision to redshirt him. He got to his four-game threshold, and we pulled him from obviously dressing (out in uniform). Certainly, that was the message I think that was sent to everybody. He has really flourished in the last month. Kind of the light has gone on. I think what we had early on was a young player that, he had not a lot of high school experience even. Hadn’t played a lot of football. I think coming down with us, and me getting a chance to see him every day on scout team, he is learning how to play the game the right way. I’m pretty excited about him moving forward.”

On defensive coordinator Matt House being semifinalist for Broyles Award?

“Deservedly so. Deservedly so. Thank you.”

On the concern of losing Matt House to a head coaching position?

“No. If Matt House gets an opportunity where he thinks he is going to be better for it, I will help him in any way possible. I think that’s part of this profession. He has done an outstanding job. I don’t know that Matt House came here to be the defensive coordinator for a year. He is going to have to run through his family and his wife. I think they like it here, but that’s up to Matt. But I would never be in the way of any of our coaches if they have an opportunity to move on to be a head coach. I would fully support them.”

Does bulletin board material get your attention?

“If he was going to be playing for us and he was one of my players, I would probably discipline him. But for us it’s really about our preparation, and how we prepare is going to make a bigger difference than what anybody says about us. I kind of got through that a long time ago that what people say really has little to do on how you play. We know it’s a rivalry game. We know it’s A&M. Our guys know that. They don’t need any more motivation to play this game, so that’s a distraction. We’ll focus on what will get us to play better, and that’s our preparation, and we’ll focus on that.”

On Jayden Daniels’ production at this stage of season?

“More than anything else it’s about him continuing to prepare the right way that allows him to play assertive and aggressively, and that I think is where we are with our quarterback. I felt really good. I know he felt good about his preparation. He will need to do that again this week. I’m not going to give him any excuse as to why he didn’t prepare as well or couldn’t prepare as well, but that Arkansas week he had the flu. He was sick, and it just wasn’t the kind of preparation necessary. It was great this week, and we’re going to have to stay on top of it again because we can clearly see when he prepares well, he plays well.”

On struggles you’ve seen this year from A&M?

“It’s a young football team. It’s a very talented football team, but it’s young. You can see at times it is really scary and then sometimes, there’s a loss, maybe some focus. But if they put it all together, it’s not a team you want to be around when they put it all together. It’s a very talented football team.”

On ability of your players to play through recent illness?

“I think they all want to play regardless. DeMario Tolan had a 102 temperature on Friday, so we pulled him out of the hotel. His fever broke, and we were able to play him. Kayshon (Boutte) was sick, he tried to play. We gave him an IV, he couldn’t answer the bell. Everybody is individually different in terms of how they get through it, but they all want to play. They all want to fight through it. Generally, we’ve been very lucky that it’s been a quick-moving flu in terms of 24 hours. Once they get through it, they’ve been able to bounce back and play for us.”

On lessons learned about NCAA transfer portal?

“I think any time that you go in and take transfers that have been in other programs, you have to make sure they’re not carrying a lot of baggage. You have to make sure that they understand the standards within your program, what your expectations are clearly, that there’s no promises other than the things that you want accomplished within your program. And it’s just clearly communicated as to what the things that you are looking for in making this transfer. As you know, a lot of them were from the state of Louisiana. If we can continue down that road where there is a connection to LSU and the state, we want that as well.”

On the component of intelligence being a key to this year’s success?

“I think it’s one of the areas that can really get you in trouble or really can get you out of trouble. And I think it got us out of trouble because we took great character kids that could represent our program in a positive way both on and off the field. I think you bring up the point that both of those guys (Noah Cain and Greg Brooks) immediately helped us build the right standards in the program and have obviously been real consistent performers for us. In particular, Noah down the stretch here for us. I think when you go into the transfer portal, you better know what you are getting. If you don’t, then shame on you. I think we knew what we were with getting with those two kids.”

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