LAFAYETTE — UL-Lafayette’s defense came up with its second straight strong effort, but Thursday night’s performance was much different than last week’s journey to Idaho.
This time, defenders bent but didn’t break, holding Texas State on several drives deep into Ragin’ Cajuns territory, and the hosts made an early lead stand up in a 24-7 victory over the Bobcats that gave the Cajuns their second straight Sun Belt Conference victory.
UL-Lafayette (3-3, 2-1) scored on each of its first two possessions and never trailed, but it was a defensive unit that stopped the Bobcats on six of seven trips across the 50 that provided the biggest boost in getting the Cajuns back to the .500 mark heading into three straight road games.
“From start to finish, we got some big stops,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said, “and the big thing was that we continued to get off the field. We got good pressure on the quarterback, and we got the turnovers that led to some big scores. That was another step in the right direction, and back-to-back performances by the defense. A lot of guys made big plays.”
On Saturday, the Cajuns defense held Idaho out of the end zone in the final three and a half quarters in a 21-16 victory, shutting down a potent Vandals offense. This time, UL-Lafayette’s defense forced a season-high three turnovers, one of them Tracy Walker’s key interception at the goal line in the final minute of the first half that preserved a 14-0 halftime lead.
The Cajuns also converted two fumble recoveries into 10 points, and the Bobcats (1-6, 0-3) never got closer than seven points in dropping their sixth straight overall and their fifth straight to UL-Lafayette.
Andre Nunez, making his first collegiate start after entering in relief of Jordan Davis the past two games, threw for 232 yards on 17-of-27 passing. The last of his completions was the most important, an 8-yard scoring pass to Keenan Barnes with 10:03 left providing the final score.
New Orleans-Shaw freshman Trey Ragas rushed for two touchdowns in the game’s first eight minutes and finished with a game-high 72 rushing yards. Ragas has rushed for at least 60 yards and one score in each game.
The Cajuns offense scored on all four of its red-zone possessions and remained one of only a dozen teams nationally to score on every trip inside the 20 this season (26 of 26).
UL-Lafayette built its largest lead of the season on their first two Thursday possessions, with Nunez leading an 80-yard march on the first and the second a 40-yard drive after the early fumble recovery.
Nunez’s 50-yard deep shot to Barnes provided most of the yardage on the early drive; two plays later, Ragas broke a tackle up the middle and went the final 11 yards for a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
Two plays after the ensuing kickoff, Bobcats starting quarterback Damian Williams, a Mississippi State transfer, fumbled while attempting a handoff and Damar’ren Mitchell recovered for the Cajuns at the Texas State 40.
Nunez found Ryheem Malone for 20 yards on a third-and-6, with Malone knifing on a slant pattern to the Bobcat 2. From there, Ragas went over left tackle for a 14-point lead with 7:48 still left in the first quarter.
“Our offense got us off to an incredible start,” Hudspeth said. “We sort of got out of rhythm after that, things that kept us from really executing to put the game away. We weren’t able to do that until late, but we got some drives late and Keenan made a great play there in the end zone.”
The Bobcats limited the Cajuns to three first downs the rest of the half, and backup quarterback Willie Jones provided TSU an offensive spark. He drove the Bobcats to the Cajuns 30-, 38- and 7-yard lines on the final three possessions of the half. But Jones was stacked up on a fourth-and-1 on the first drive, the Bobcats punted on the second and Walker's goal-line pick ended the third threat with 54 seconds left in the half.
“Being able to go in at halftime 14-0 instead of 14-7 and them having all that momentum was huge,” Hudspeth said. “If they scored right there they would have had all the momentum, so that was a really big stop and a big-time play by Tracy.”
Texas State had a 13-9 first down advantage and a 223-173 advantage in total offense by halftime, but the Bobcats couldn't score even though UL-Lafayette foes had scored in 17 straight quarters going into the ESPNU-televised game.
The Bobcats finally cashed in on a drive midway through the third quarter after forcing a punt, with Jones completing three passes and adding a 20-yard scramble that went to the Cajun 3. On second down, Anthony Taylor burst across from 1 yard out to make it 14-7.
Texas State forced a second straight punt one series later, but Jones fumbled on the next drive, and backup end Chaizere Malbrue recovered for the Cajuns at the Bobcats' 17. That set up Stevie Artigue’s 27-yard field goal five seconds before the end of the third quarter.
One possession later, UL-Lafayette put it away. Nunez completed four straight passes for 67 yards in an 83-yard, seven-play march, ending with a fade pass to Barnes, who made a leaping catch in the back left corner of the end zone.