LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette’s postseason football hopes remain alive and well, and the Ragin’ Cajuns can thank three late defensive plays and a last-minute change at quarterback Saturday night.
The Cajuns held on for a 47-34 victory against New Mexico State, intercepting Aggies backup quarterback Nick Jeanty three times in the final 6:06 after breaking a 34-34 tie early in the fourth quarter.
UL-Lafayette has won four of its past six games and kept its hopes alive for a share of the Sun Belt Conference title. The Cajuns (5-5, 4-2) also are within one win of bowl eligibility with two games remaining.
“That would mean so much to so many of our fans, and so much to this team,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “But we still have a lot of ball left, and this one puts us a step closer to reaching a couple of our goals.”
The Cajuns led by a three-score margin when Jordan Davis’ 43-yard touchdown run provided a 28-10 lead late in the first half. But the Aggies (4-6, 2-4) roared back behind quarterback Tyler Rogers and running back Larry Rose III, tying the game 34-34 with 14:19 left on Dylan Brown’s 19-yard field goal.
Davis, though, led the Cajuns on a 65-yard march and hit Ryheem Malone on a 33-yard crossing pattern for his second touchdown pass of the game with 10:21 left for a 41-34 lead.
Jeanty had replaced Rogers late in the third quarter after the senior was hit hard on a short completion. Jeanty drove the Aggies to one touchdown and Brown’s field goal. But after Davis’ tiebreaking pass, Jeanty was sacked on third down near midfield on the next drive, and UL-Lafayette got interceptions from Jacques Boudreaux, Justin Middleton and Koa Haynes on NMSU’s final three possessions.
“I was really proud of the way our guys continued to believe,” Hudspeth said. “We didn’t play as well as we can defensively, and we’ve still got a lot of things to clean up, but we’re definitely going to enjoy this victory.”
Davis stepped back into his early-season starting role because freshman Levi Lewis appeared hobbled with an ankle injury in pregame warmups. The senior threw for 203 yards and rushed for 71 while accounting for three touchdowns.
Davis didn’t know he was starting until 20 minutes before kickoff, after Lewis, who's from Scotlandville, had taken most of the snaps with the No. 1 offense in both Wednesday and Thursday’s practices and in pregame warmups.
“In our mind we thought (Lewis) was going to get the start,” Hudspeth said. “We were watching him closely in the pregame, and give him credit — he came to me coming up the tunnel and said he didn’t want to hurt the football team. He said he didn’t think he could get away from people effectively enough, and that’s what he does. He didn’t think he was going to be able to make plays with his legs.”
That brought on Davis, who guided two 75-yard drives on the Cajuns’ first two possessions. The Cajuns weren’t forced to punt until less than two minutes remained in the third quarter, and they already had 360 offensive yards and 19 first downs in the first half. The Cajuns ended up with 509 yards, their most since late September.
“We were playing with a guy at quarterback that didn’t find out until right before the game that he was starting,” Hudspeth said, “and (the Aggies) were playing with a sixth-year senior. But our guys really stepped it up. We were able to run the ball really effectively.”
True freshman Trey Ragas ran for a career-high 132 yards and two scores, including a 4-yard run with 5:31 left that gave the Cajuns some breathing room at 47-34. That score came two plays after Boudreaux’s interception and 50-yard return to the Aggies' 15-yard line.
Davis led UL-Lafayette on four long drives to touchdowns, including a pair of 75-yard marches on its first two possessions. The junior accounted for 231 yards in the first half, helping set up Dion Ray’s 3-yard touchdown run and then hitting Michael Jacquet with a 3-yard fade for a touchdown and 14-7 lead.
In between those scores, NMSU’s Jason Huntley briefly tied the game when he returned Stevie Artigue’s kickoff 97 yards for a tying touchdown, but the Cajuns faked a field goal and got a first-down run from Ragas moments later to set up Davis’ first touchdown pass.
Ragas made it 21-7 when he pulled out of the grasp of NMSU linebacker Dalton Herrington and went 31 yards for his eighth touchdown to cap a quick three-play, 49-yard drive.
That’s when Rogers heated up, guiding NMSU to three straight touchdowns spanning the second and third quarters after the Aggies were held to minus-6 yards through the first quarter and a half. Rose, the No. 4 career rusher in Sun Belt history, ran for scores of 2 and 7 yards and caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from Rogers.
That brought the Aggies within 34-31, and Brown had the tying field goal after the Cajuns’ first punt of the game.
“Early in the game we got some stops, and that was critical to help us get a lead,” Hudspeth said. “(NMSU) found some answers, give them credit for that. We knew we had to score 35 or more if we were going to win this game. These guys know how to score points, and they do a really good job offensively, but we were able to score early and our linebackers came up with some big interceptions late.”