Anthony Jennings’ first collegiate start came in a bowl game, when he threw for 181 yards and a touchdown, leading LSU to a win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl to end the 2013 season.
Tigers fans and coaches ... Louisiana-Lafayette fans and coaches ... and Jennings himself ... none would have dreamed at the time that the Marietta, Georgia, native would lead a different program into a bowl for his final college game.
“I’m not sure where we would be right now without him,” Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said prior to his team’s final regular-season game. “But I’ll say this, I’m sure glad he’s on our team.”
That was before UL-Lafayette’s 30-3 victory at UL-Monroe to end the regular season — a win that assured a bowl trip after a roller-coaster season. It also assured Jennings of one more game under center when he leads the Cajuns into Saturday’s New Orleans Bowl against Southern Miss.
“It’s really satisfying,” Jennings said, “but it falls back on the team and the coaches. They believed in me early, and we just fought through adversity throughout this season. We know we have a good football team. We caught some tough breaks early in the season, but we’ve come along well these past few weeks.”
Those tough breaks came in a three-game streak that ended the season’s first half. After credible performances in his first three games — an opening loss to a strong Boise State team and wins over McNeese State and South Alabama — Jennings was bitten by the interception bug.
He had two picks against USA, but also connected on 18 of 26 passes for 256 yards and three scores. But in back-to-back overtime losses at Tulane and New Mexico State, Jennings was picked off two more times each. A following 24-0 shutout at the hands of Appalachian State blatantly showed UL-Lafayette’s offensive troubles.
Hudspeth said struggles could have been expected because Jennings came to the Cajuns under different circumstances than most. As a graduate transfer, the 6-foot-2, 231-pounder had to finish degree requirements at LSU over the summer to become eligible.
That meant Jennings didn't hit the field with his new teammates until August.
“He didn’t have spring ball, he didn’t have summer workouts,” Hudspeth said. “It takes time to develop that chemistry, especially with the receivers. Most guys are throwing balls to them all summer. He didn’t have that.”
He also didn’t have an easy task to a bowl. UL-Lafayette was 2-4 following the Appalachian State debacle, and a split in the next two games meant the Cajuns had to win three of their last four to gain bowl eligibility.
That closing stretch included Georgia Southern and Arkansas State, both picked in the Sun Belt Conference’s top three, and a trip to Georgia. But Jennings and the Cajuns pulled off a surprising 33-26 win at Georgia Southern, helped by his 210 yards passing and 96 yards rushing.
After a 35-21 loss at Georgia, the Cajuns had a scintillating 24-19 home-finale win over ASU, which was decided on a final-play review overturn. They capped their “playoff” streak with last Saturday’s win at Monroe.
“The way he’s kept working and kept a good attitude, and the way he’s progressed, that’s been great to see,” Hudspeth said. “You can see the progression he’s made with our receivers. You’ve seen in the last four or five weeks what it would have been if he’d had a spring and a summer. They are really on the same page right now.”
That page was ripped from the game plan last Saturday when stiff winds and driving rains nullified any hopes of a passing game.
The Cajuns and the Warhawks were at zero passing yards before ULM completed three passes in the final five minutes. Jennings wound up 2-for-5 passing with two interceptions and a net zero yards.
“That’s a first for me ever in my life,” Jennings said with a laugh. “But the win was ultimately the biggest thing. To get to this bowl game, we had to get that win. It may have been ugly, but however you get it done, you get it done.”
Jennings has thrown for 2,083 yards on 61.1 percent completions and 11 touchdowns, and he is UL-Lafayette’s second-leading rusher with 322 yards and seven more scores.
Those numbers are better than the 2014 season in which he started 12 games for the Tigers, when he completed just under 50 percent of his throws for 1,611 yards and 11 scores and rushed for 292.
Those numbers included LSU’s Music City Bowl appearance, when he had a 75-yard scoring pass in the last-second 31-28 loss to Notre Dame.
But the former MVP of the prep Elite 11 Atlanta Region fell out of favor the following year, seeing action in only two LSU games in 2015. That limited playing time is the basis for he and UL-Lafayette’s plans to appeal to the NCAA for an additional year of eligibility. But Jennings isn’t focused on that this week.
“This team has worked very hard to get to this point,” he said. “We wanted to finish this off on a strong note.”
He also knows the Cajuns have won on all four New Orleans Bowl trips. His use of the term “we” says volumes of how far Jennings has come since being forced to introduce himself to those teammates in August.
“Every time we’ve been there, we’ve won, so we want to keep that tradition going and get a W,” he said. “The guys that have been there, they loved the bowl, they loved the atmosphere, they said how much fun it was. I’m looking forward to it.”