LAFAYETTE — It may not have looked pretty, but Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth credited his defense with the win in Saturday’s regular-season finale, which capped the most successful two-season stretch in Ragin’ Cajun history.
The Cajuns gave up 528 yards to Florida Atlantic, the most ULL has allowed in six games. But eight stops — three turnovers, three fourth-down denials, a punt and a blocked field goal — were more than enough for the Cajuns to post a 35-21 victory. Hudspeth was most proud of the turnovers.
“That was the best part,” he said Monday. “Defensively we bent — way too much, if you ask me — but anytime you win the turnover battle 3-0, you’re going to have opportunities to win a lot of games.”
The turnovers helped ULL (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt) rally from an early 14-7 deficit, but the biggest one came early in the final period, when the Cajuns held a 28-21 lead and FAU was driving. Linebacker Justin Anderson forced a fumble by FAU running back Damian Fortner at the ULL 34, and the Cajuns went 66 yards in five plays as Alonzo Harris scored his third touchdown on a 2-yard run with 7:06 left.
“We practice that, getting the ball out,” said Anderson, ULL’s second-leading tackler and the team leader Saturday with nine solo stops. “It’s a matter of preparation, watching how guys do things on film and being in the right place to make plays like that.”
“Some players just have that instinct,” Hudspeth said. “Some guys have size and strength; they look like a Greek god, and they don’t make plays. (Anderson) has that football sense, that nose for the ball.”
The touchdown provided a two-score difference, and one of ULL’s fourth-down stops came at its 16 with 4:48 left to secure back-to-back eight-win regular seasons — a first in Cajun history.
ULL tallied three touchdowns in four possessions straddling halftime behind 284 rushing yards, its third-most of the season. A big chunk of those came on the game’s third play, when quarterback Terrance Broadway broke loose on a 77-yard option run.
“We got them out of the three-down front on that play, and they never came back to it,” Hudspeth said. “We’re going to take what people give us, and we’ve been having success running the football.”
Broadway wants more from the offense, though.
“We still haven’t reached where we can be on offense,” said Broadway, who rushed for 123 yards and passed for 168 on 13-of-19 completions against FAU. “I still have a lot of learning to do before the bowl game.”
Despite not starting until the Cajuns’ third Sun Belt game, Broadway ended up leading the league in total yards and passing efficiency in conference games.
“To me, he’s the best in the conference,” Hudspeth said of the former Capitol High standout, who took over for the injured Blaine Gautier full-time in ULL’s fifth game. “We probably utilize him running a little more than we did Blaine.”
The Cajuns have won four of five, the only loss coming on the final play to Sugar Bowl-bound Florida. That stretch cemented a berth in the Dec. 22 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, which the Cajuns will begin preparations for in earnest Sunday.
ULL will practice Wednesday during a break in final exams, but most of the coaches will be out recruiting.
“Our players need some down time,” Hudspeth said. “They’ve been going at it hard for 18 weeks. With the bowl, it’s an extra spring football practice.”
The Cajuns will go for a second straight New Orleans Bowl win after topping San Diego State 32-30 last year. This year, they’ll face East Carolina (8-4, 7-1 Conference USA), which averaged 42 points in its final six outings, including a 65-59 double-overtime win against Marshall in its finale.
“We know they can score, and we have to be ready for that,” Broadway said. “I believe in our offense and in this team, so a shootout doesn’t bother me.”