Louisiana-Lafayette’s hopes for a share of the Sun Belt Conference football title faded in a hurry on Saturday.
So, very likely, did their hopes of playing a postseason game.
The Ragin’ Cajuns did very little to slow Georgia Southern’s option attack, and struggled with its own offensive consistency in falling to Georgia Southern’s resurgent Eagles 34-24 in their home finale.
The Eagles (2-9, 2-5), who had lost their first nine games this year but have now won their past two by a combined 86-24 score, led 17-0 one play into the second quarter and held that 17-point advantage three other times in the game. Meanwhile, the host Cajuns (5-6, 4-3) had no first downs in the first period and only two in the first half.
UL-Lafayette did wind up with 379 offensive yards, and replacement quarterback Jordan Davis had a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth period, but he also had two second-half interceptions.
In all, the Cajuns had three turnovers after entering the game with only 10 in 10 games this year, and were unable to match the offensive efficiency of the Eagles. Georgia Southern finished the night with 385 rush yards, including 186 from tailback Wesley Fields, and controlled the ball for over 40 minutes (40:02-19:58) with that ground attack.
“We knew it was going to be a game that we had to score in the 30’s and we got off to way too much of a slow offensive start early,” Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We had the first four or five possessions that we did nothing. We basically shot ourselves in the foot early.”
The Cajuns entered Saturday needing one win in their past two games to reach the six-win plateau and gain bowl eligibility, and likely claim one of the Sun Belt’s five automatic bowl tie-ins. Now, UL-Lafayette is faced with the task of traveling to Appalachian State, which will be playing for no worse than a share of the league title in next Saturday’s 1:30 p.m., regular-season finale in Boone, N.C.
A win in that game would make the Cajuns the fifth bowl-eligible team in the Sun Belt, but Hudspeth said that wasn’t his team’s focus.
“We’re not worried about that right now,” Hudspeth said when asked about playing for a bowl trip next week. “We’re more disappointed that we didn’t come away with a win tonight. Give them (Georgia Southern) credit, that’s a hard offense to stop.”
The Eagles rolled up 583 offensive yards in a stunning 52-0 victory over South Alabama last week, and picked up right where they left off with the three early scoring drives.
“These guys have been working all year,” said Eagle interim head coach Chad Lunsford, who took over after Tyson Summers was fired following an 0-6 start. “These last two weeks they’ve started putting it all together and started taking care of the football. We had it for 40 minutes tonight, and when you keep the ball away that long, the other team can’t score.”
The Cajuns did get the two late scores, but turned it over on downs with 5:12 left and Davis had his second interception with 3:02 left.
“We kept battling and our guys kept trying to find a way,” Hudspeth said. “We just ran out of time.”
The Cajuns also ran out of offensive consistency, with most of their offense in the first half coming on two big plays, and one of those resulted in UL-Lafayette’s first score. That came after GSU’s Tyler Bass hit a 42-yard field goal on the first play of the second period for the early 17-0 lead.
On the first snap after the kickoff, and with Davis taking over at quarterback for an ineffective Levi Lewis, senior Darius Hoggins took a pitch on the right side, shed a tackle attempt from linebacker Chris DeLaRosa and won a 75-yard footrace down the Cajuns’ sideline for UL-Lafayette’s longest offensive play of the year.
Other than that, the Cajuns’ only other first down in the first half came on a 42-yard pass from Davis to Ryheem Malone that put them at the Eagle 38 with four minutes left. But that drive came to a screeching halt on a sack and the Eagles ran out the rest of the half.
Fields’ eight-yard run capped a 75-yard drive on Georgia Southern’s first possession, and after a Cajun three-and-out, Shai Werts found H-back Ellis Richardson with a 33-yard scoring pass for a 14-0 lead less than 11 minutes into the game. Moments later, Lewis was intercepted by Monquavion Brinson to set up Bass’ field goal.
The Eagles made it a three-score game only three minutes into the third quarter, when Fields broke a 48-yard option run to the Cajun 15 and Werts scored two plays later on a nifty six-yard third down run when he made three would-be UL-Lafayette tacklers miss near the right sideline and tumbled into the end zone.
That made it 24-7, and the Cajuns never got the margin inside double digits the rest of the night. That came when Davis hooked up with Malone for a 17-yard score to end a 75-yard third-quarter drive.
That momentum was short-lived when GSU slotback Wesley Kennedy took a pitch on the first play after the kickoff and rambled 77 yards in front of the Cajun bench all the way to the UL-Lafayette 1. It took four plays before L. A. Ramsby leaped over the defense for a one-yard score with 11:56 left.
One play later, Davis found Ja’Marcus Bradley for a 49-yard strike and then hit Jarrod Jackson with a 26-yard fade for the final score with 11:00 left.
From there, the Eagles did enough offensively to keep UL-Lafayette bottled up in its own end on its final two drives.
“Possession time was huge,” Lunsford said. “The last two weeks we’ve been running the football, stopping the run, getting turnovers, all of that is starting to click. These guys are mentally strong because of what’s happened this year.”