LAFAYETTE — Another weekend, another slow start for Louisiana-Lafayette’s football squad.
But on Saturday, for the first time, the Ragin’ Cajuns made a second-half comeback mean something.
The Cajuns trailed Louisiana-Monroe 24-9 at halftime of Saturday’s homecoming game, the fourth time in seven games this year that UL-Lafayette had given up 24 or more points in the first half.
But a defensive shutout and three second-half scoring drives engineered by quarterback Brooks Haack combined for a 30-24 victory, keeping the Cajuns’ hopes alive for a bowl trip and the Sun Belt Conference title. But even the Cajuns players are starting to wonder about their penchant for sluggish play before halftime.
“Honestly, I don’t know. It’s funny, but it’s not,” junior cornerback Savion Brown said. “I guess that’s just the way we play football, but it’s something we have to change. We can’t just play a second-half game all the time.”
The Cajuns (3-4, 2-1) have trailed by 23, 28, 29 and 27 points in their four losses. UL-Lafayette rallied back from 23 down to tie the opener at Kentucky before falling 40-33, and two weeks ago it cut a 37-14 deficit to 37-27 early in the fourth quarter at Arkansas State before falling by that margin.
“When you go back and see some of the things we did in the first quarter, the first half, we didn’t score many points, and we didn’t play particularly well,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said at his Monday news conference. “But we had some opportunities. We moved the ball well and then bogged down. We didn’t execute well early offensively and didn’t finish drives.”
The Cajuns were held to three first-half field goals, one set up by a ULM fumble and the others ending drives of 51 and 34 yards. But while the offense was coming alive in the second half, the UL-Lafayette defense held the Warhawks to five punts, a missed field goal and a lost fumble on seven second-half possessions. The fumble came on the last of those, with freshman end Mario Osborne sacking ULM quarterback Garrett Smith and forcing a fumble that fellow freshman LaDarrius Kidd recovered with 1:38 left.
“The great thing about him, he’d only played about three plays,” Brown said of Osborne, who had no defensive statistics until his game-clincher. “He had fresh legs in there. As soon as he went in the game, he made that big play, and it was a play we really needed for us to win.”
“He’s got to practice well,” Hudspeth said of Osborne. “The guys that play are the guys that practice well.”
“I was talking to Mario before the game,” sophomore safety Tracy Walker said, “and I told him, ‘You’re going to get your opportunity and, when you get your opportunity, you’re going to make the best of it.’ ”
UL-Lafayette’s secondary was porous in Saturday’s first half, allowing ULM to complete 10 of 17 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those came on fourth down and covered 27 or more yards, while the third score came on a 53-yard pass midway through the second quarter that made it 21-9 at the time.
In the second half, the Cajuns held ULM to a 6-of-18 completion mark for 76 yards while recording three sacks in a shutout performance.
“Really, it was just us playing together,” said Brown, who had two tackles and two pass breakups. “The first half, everyone wasn’t on the same page. It wasn’t what they did that made it difficult; it was our mistakes. They were running it outside to get us outside our gaps, but the D-line made a really good adjustment to that.”
Hudspeth pointed to one of those fourth-down scores when ULM receiver Ajalen Holley leaped to grab a 29-yard Smith pass in the end zone while surrounded by three defenders.
“We had three guys on that fade route, and their guy went up and got it,” Hudspeth said. “Our coaches can’t put any more on that than three. We had guys in position a lot of times in the first half and just didn’t make plays. We’ve got to make those plays when we’re in position to do that.”
That secondary is in for a test Saturday when UL-Lafayette faces Georgia State (2-5, 1-2). Panthers senior quarterback Nick Arbuckle ranks eighth nationally with 335.9 pass yards per game. He threw for 276 yards last year in UL-Lafayette’s comeback 34-31 win at Cajun Field.
“He leads the conference, and there’s not a close second,” Hudspeth said. “He’s a phenomenal passer.”
Even with Saturday’s wet conditions, the Cajuns did not lose a fumble or throw an interception against ULM, and they have not turned the ball over in any of their three wins. They have 13 turnovers — eight interceptions and five lost fumbles — in their four losses.
“That’s a credit to our players to handle those conditions,” Hudspeth said. “Snaps were good all night long.”
Still, Hudspeth was less than happy with the handling of the footballs by game officials.
“I didn’t think the officials did a great job of keeping the balls dry and changing them out,” he said. “We had to handle wet balls all night, but our kids handled it well.”
Hudspeth’s wife, Tyla, was absent from Saturday’s win, but she had a good excuse: She was in New York, joining tens of thousands of runners for Sunday’s New York Marathon.
Tyla Hudspeth, who has run in the Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas marathons along with the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Marathon, had qualified for the New York Marathon in 2012 before it was canceled after Hurricane Sandy. Qualifiers that year were given the choice of running in a future event.
She ran the race in 4 hours, 32 minutes, 8 seconds — a 10:23 per-mile pace and well off her best marathon time of around 3:50. She finished 24,333rd out of the more than 50,000 finishers.
“She was running with a couple of friends and stayed with them,” Mark Hudspeth said, “so her time wasn’t nearly what she would have run. But she had a lot of fun. They run it through all five boroughs, so it passes by a lot of New York landmarks.”
The Cajuns will depart for Atlanta much earlier than normal Friday and will visit the College Football Hall of Fame as a team that day. ... Other than the Nov. 28 game at league-leading Appalachian State (4-0, 7-1), UL-Lafayette’s remaining four opponents have a combined 8-22 mark and a 4-10 Sun Belt record.