Louisiana-Lafayette did not take the path of least resistance to arrive one victory from playing in the inaugural Sun Belt Conference championship game.
Saturday’s 48-38 victory against South Alabama was a perfect illustration.
Facing the team ranked last in the conference in total offense and defense, the Cajuns never trailed but neither did they look in control, even when they scored 17 unanswered points in the third quarter. Somehow, they did what they always do — persevered.
“We talked a whole while, through the good and the bad, about staying focused on what was important,” first-year coach Billy Napier said afterward, “and that was making improvements, sticking together as a team. There were plenty of opportunities out there tonight where those guys could have started pointing fingers, losing their poise. They didn’t do that. We haven’t done it the entire season. Every point in the season where we’ve had adversity, we’ve kept our poise and stayed together, whether it’s the staff or the players. We’ve got a football team.”
Because the Cajuns keep sticking together, they have stuck around in the hunt for the SBC West Division title. That matter will be settled when the Cajuns play at Louisiana-Monroe at 2 p.m. Saturday. A UL-Lafayette victory will put them opposite the Troy-Appalachian State winner for the league championship.
Not to be ignored is the Cajuns became bowl eligible Saturday and climbed above the .500 mark for the first time since a season-opening victory against Grambling. But it’s been a difficult road to get there.
UL-Lafayette (6-5, 4-3 in SBC) started conference play 1-2 but has rallied behind it’s quick-strike offense that boasts consistency at quarterback and great depth at the skill positions. Saturday it was wide receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley catching three passes, all for touchdowns in the first half, and running back Elijah Mitchell. He matched those scores with his own, including a 45-yard run to give the Cajuns the lead for good.
The Cajuns defense struggled to get off the field, surrendering drives of 20, 15 and 13 plays in the first half. At one point the play disparity was 57-22 and ended up 85-52. But the Cajuns finally came up with four consecutive stops – two fumble recoveries and two punts — which allowed them to build a three-score lead.
“There have been days where the defense has had to have the offenses’ back and vice versa,” Napier said. “We’re playing next week to get in the championship game, and that’s the objective — be a contender, get into the mix. Through improvement and building a better team we’ve done that.”
Bradley made a nice play on a deep pass, hauling in a 44-yard scoring pass from Levi Lewis. It gave his defense a breather after that one-play drive with an onsides kick call, executed perfecting by Kyle Pfau, who made the kick and recovered it. Bradley later caught a 1-yard scoring pass to give him the SBC lead in receiving touchdowns.
“Any given night it can be any player,” Bradley said. “Tonight, it just happened to be me. (On the 44-yard TD) I couldn’t see Levi. I saw the ball in the air and thought, ‘Is this for Ryheem (Malone) or me?’ I was like, ‘Forget it. I’m just going to get it.’
“We knew people outside the complex really didn’t believe in us, but we had faith. We knew we had weapons, coach put us all together and we came together as a team and took off. We had a few bumps in the road but stayed together.”