LAFAYETTE — Final-play mania — with a focus on blocked punts, no less — is continuing to stalk Louisiana-Lafayette.
A week after scoring on an 81-yard touchdown pass with no time remaining in a win against the Louisiana-Monroe, the Ragin’ Cajuns had a different end-of-game experience Saturday at Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Instead of celebrating, as they did at ULM, the Cajuns watched Florida share the jubilation after the Gators blocked and then returned a Brett Baer punt for a touchdown with 2 seconds left to claim a shocking 27-20 win.
Once again, the result rested on a key punt protection decision by ULL coach Mark Hudspeth.
In the Cajuns’ 40-24 win over ULM, Hudspeth said a key touchdown throw from quarterback Terrance Broadway to wide receiver Jamal Robinson was called to keep ULM from possibly blocking a kick.
Against Florida, with the score tied at 20, Hudspeth said the quandary for him in the final seconds was fear of the punt block.
The difference with Florida?
Hudspeth said he knew that this time, the opponents were really targeting his punter.
“We called max protection (on the punt), because we knew they were going to come after it. But our shield slipped a bit,” Hudspeth said. “(Florida) came with the same attack as earlier, but this time one, of their guys got through and got to the punter.”
Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins collected the ball, which was tipped by the right hand of teammate Louchiez Purifoy, and ran 36 yards to the ULL end zone.
“We called timeout and I was asked (if Florida should align for a block),” Florida coach Will Muschamp said after the game. “I said to go do it. Purifoy has great ball skills, and we wanted to put him in a situation where he can block the ball.”
Jenkins said the trip into the end zone was nearly effortless.
“They executed (the block) perfectly, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Jenkins said. “It came to me, and I just tried to run as far as I could. It was a lot of open field and I had a lot of blockers.”
Muschamp said ULL was in a difficult position at that point and felt the Cajuns had no other choice except to punt.
“They didn’t have any timeouts, and we wanted to see what they would do, which was what I probably would have done on the road: Take it to overtime,” Muschamp said.
That indeed was the plan, Hudspeth said.
“I thought if we could get it into overtime, then who knows what would have happened?” he said. “We were backed up after the kickoff (following Florida’s touchdown with 1:42 remaining). I wasn’t sure we had enough time.
“We had been grinding the ball on offense all day and hadn’t made too many big plays. I just didn’t think 1:42 was enough to move into scoring position>”
ULL also scored when defensive lineman Blake Comminie returned a punt block by Bradley Brown in the third quarter. That TD gave the Cajuns a 17-13 lead.
Later, the Cajuns scored on a 22-yard field goal, but Hudspeth said those three points, instead of seven, left him with trepidation.
“I felt that was the key series in the game. We drove it down the field and have a field goal. If we had punched it in the end zone, I didn’t think that Florida would have enough to come back,” Hudspeth said. “But we still had the field goal and that opened the door.”
Muschamp said Hudspeth told him at midfield after the game that Florida “had a great team, and great teams find ways to win games.”
“I don’t know if I would stretch it that far,” said Muschamp, whose team is 9-1.
Sun Belt next for ULL
The Cajuns (5-4, 3-2 Sun Belt Conference) play their remaining regular season games against conference opponents.
Western Kentucky (6-4, 3-3) face ULL at 6 p.m. Saturday in Lafayette.
The Hilltoppers were once 3-1 in the SBC, but have since lost to ULM, Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic, which defeated WKU 37-28 on Saturday.
Close SEC defeats
The Cajuns have never defeated a Southeastern Conference opponent, but Saturday’s defeat at Florida marked one of several close losses.
ULL lost to Ole Miss 21-20 in 1986, followed by defeats at Alabama (24-17, in 1989), Auburn (25-24, in 1992), Arkansas (24-17, in 2002) and South Carolina (14-7, in 2003).