LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Louisiana-Lafayette football team spent the better part of the second half building up the breath to knock the Kentucky house down, but the Wildcats held strong and the Ragin’ Cajuns’ last breath came out in a whisper in a 40-33 loss Saturday night.
“We were fixin’ to win the football game,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “I did not see us losing that game. … There’s no quit in our guys.”
The Cajuns outscored Kentucky 26-16 in the second half, coming back from a 17-point halftime deficit to tie the score with 11:19 to go.
But Kentucky found itself late. Running back Mikel Horton put the Wildcats ahead for good with a 12-yard touchdown run with 57 seconds remaining.
The Cajuns got the ball back and needed to go 78 yards for a score. Coach Mark Hudspeth inserted quarterback Brooks Haack, who started the game but sat the majority of the fourth quarter, as the Cajuns’ better passing threat.
But the Cajuns couldn’t find any room offensively on that final drive, completing a series of short passes before being forced to try a Hail Mary attempt from their 42-yard line on the final play. It was intercepted to preserve Kentucky’s win.
It ruined what would’ve been a comeback for the ages.
Hudspeth knew he had a young team on his hands, and after a rough first half that saw it down 24-7, he did his best to settle the players down.
“We get the ball to start the second half,” Hudspeth said to his team in a moment caught by ESPN cameras. “Let’s take it down the field. Take it down the field, punch it in, 24-14. Keep plugging, keep holding the rope, keeping making plays. We’re going to climb back in this game. They know this game ain’t over.”
The Cajuns went three-and-out on that possession. The next time they were set to get the ball, star running back Elijah McGuire muffed a punt and Kentucky recovered turned into three points.
Then they took over.
The Cajuns scored on their next four possessions, the last three of which ended in touchdowns and the last two of those including a two-point conversion, to turn a game that looked like it was heading for Blowoutville into a tie game with 11:19 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Junior quarterback Jalen Nixon was the catalyst. He entered on the first of those touchdown drives and forced Kentucky to defend a new style of play. Nixon ran the read-option to perfection and showed off a strong arm when needed, completing all four of his pass attempts for 38 yards.
“He sparked us with some quarterback runs and continued to move the chains,” Hudspeth said.
But Nixon came off the field for the final drive, giving way to Haack as the Cajuns needed to cover 78 yards in the final minute and change.
“Just for the two-minute offense, that’s sort of Brooks’ deal,” Hudspeth said. “That was our decision there.”
The only thing that could slow the Wildcats early was their own game clock.
The clock kept running when it wasn’t supposed to after the Wildcats received the opening kickoff. After a short delay, the officials determined they’d have to keep the time manually until the scoreboard operators figured out the problem.
As soon as the refs whistled for play to resume, Wildcats running back Stanley “Boom” Williams sliced through a gaping hole in the middle of the Louisiana-Lafayette defense and outraced the pack for a 75-yard touchdown run on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
This set the tone for a first half when the Cajuns couldn’t stop a nosebleed. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Cajuns couldn’t stop an air raid.
Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles abused the Cajuns secondary over the top with his group of speedy receivers.
New Cajuns defensive coordinator Melvin Smith said at the beginning of the season that he would prefer to play man defense, and Kentucky preferred the brand of man defense the Cajuns played, too.
The Wildcats consistently spread the field out with four or five-receiver sets, then Towles would identify the single coverage — often without a safety over the top — and lob the pass where only his receivers could get them.
It resulted in six passing plays of 25 yards or more in the first half against the Cajuns, including touchdowns of 35 and 37 yards. At one point late in the first quarter, Towles was averaging nearly 33 yards per completion.
“I don’t think we kept them off balance enough coverage wise,” Hudspeth said. “We played a lot of press and we didn’t mix it enough to try to keep them off balance.”
The deep passes were turning an advantage for the Cajuns into a nightmare. Kentucky needed only 3:53 to compile back-to-back drives that covered 95 or more yards, including one drive where they were backed up at their own 1-yard line.
The deep pass play was their weapon of choice. Kentucky compiled seven plays of 25 or more yards in the first half against the Cajuns, six of them coming through the air.
But the Cajuns defense held strong coming out of the locker room in the second half. After rolling up 303 yards in the first half, the Wildcats managed 93 in the third quarter — 70 of which came on runs of 32 and 38 yards that came in a span of three plays.
The big plays behind the Cajuns secondary weren’t there, though. Towles went just 6-for-16 in the second half for 38 yards.
“I thought we did a much better job in the second half,” Hudspeth said. “They didn’t seem to know if we were going to be in press or back out in zone.”