A game that wound up being decided by field goals — one made, one missed — was supposed to match the Sun Belt Conference’s best rushing team against one of the league’s premier running backs.
So, naturally, it was the quarterbacks that took center stage, and UL’s Levi Lewis won the matchup and was the catalyst for the Ragin’ Cajuns making history Saturday night.
Lewis threw three touchdowns passes and ran for a key fourth-down conversion on UL’s final drive, setting up Stevie Artigue’s 27-yard field goal with 1:21 left that provided the final points in the Cajuns’ 31-30 victory over UL-Monroe.
The Cajuns, finishing off their first 10-win season and now headed for next Saturday’s Sun Belt championship game, then had to hold off a last-ditch effort by ULM senior standout Caleb Evans, who threw for 330 yards and two scores while running for a third.
Evans had four completions in a final Warhawk drive that reached the UL 18 with six seconds left, but kicker Jared Porter pulled his 35-yard field goal wide left to let the Cajuns escape with their second straight last-second victory over their in-state rivals.
“In football they’re not all going to be 53-3,” said UL coach Billy Napier, referring to Nov. 23’s 53-3 win over Troy that locked up the Sun Belt Western Division title. “There’s going to be nights like this tonight. This is more like some of the games we played in the second half of the season last year. We had some veteran players and they were used to that and they executed when it mattered the most.”
One of those veterans was Lewis, who completed 15 of 23 passes for 270 yards, averaging 18 yards per completion, and his three-TD, no-interception night left him with a 206.9 quarterback rating. But his biggest play came with his feet, when he broke from the pocket on a fourth-and-9 with 3:45 left and scrambled for 14 yards and a first down to the ULM 28.
Five plays later, Artigue made his 11th straight field goal that provided the margin of victory.
“Levi has the ability to make plays with his feet,” Napier said. “He had a big third down a few plays before the fourth down, so you got to give the kid credit. He is at his best when it matters the most, and he did a lot of good things tonight.”
“When I see that man with the ball, the first thing I think of is Houdini,” said linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, who led the Cajuns with 12 tackles. “You think you’ve got him, and you don’t. He can extend plays, and when he sees the opportunity to run the ball he makes things happen. That man could get out of a paper bag.”
As a backup, Lewis had a fourth-quarter, 40-yard touchdown pass in last year’s 31-28 Cajuns win in Monroe. Ironically, one that was also made possible by a ULM missed field goal in the final four seconds. In that game, Lewis was 6-for-6 passing and also had a clutch 16-yard run that kept a Cajuns scoring drive alive.
“He approaches the game different this year,” said senior receiver Ja’Marcus Bradley, who caught a 42-yard scoring pass from Lewis early in the second quarter. “He’s not afraid to make mistakes. Last year, he may have been a little afraid to make a mistake and wanted to do everything perfect. He’s a much more complete quarterback this year.”
With UL’s rushing attack ranked sixth nationally, Lewis’ season-long accomplishments have been almost overlooked, but the Baton Rouge junior is now tied for second in UL’s record book for season touchdown passes (20).
“In our building he does,” Napier said when asked if Lewis gets the credit he deserves. “We all know how hard he works, and we know what we ask him to do in our system. There’s lots of things that people don’t understand what he’s doing out there, but he makes decisions every play. He does it the right way.
“Here’s the kind of guy he is. … He came to me and said he wasn’t sure we celebrated the right way there at the end, we need to do that with more class. I mean, we just won the 10th game, and he’s not happy with the way it went down. We talk about the quarterback being the standard-bearer for the organization, representing everything we want our team to be, and he is that for sure.”
Evans, who accounted for six touchdowns in ULM’s 56-50 win over the Cajuns in 2017 in his last visit to Cajun Field, brought his team back from a seven-point deficit with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Hodoh midway through the third quarter. At the end of that third period, his 66-yard strike to Perry Carter set up Porter’s 23-yard field goal that pulled ULM within 28-24.
In all, Evans completed 22 of 37 passes with the two scores to go with 77 yards rushing and a 19-yard scoring run late in the first quarter. Over the past two weeks, Evans has thrown for 679 yards while rushing for 144 more.
Napier said he made sure to seek out the Warhawks senior afterwards the game.
“That guy, what a player,” Napier said. “I went and found the guy specifically, I’ve got that much respect for him. He’s a great competitor, he’s tough. They ask the guy to run the ball, and he’s got arm talent. He makes unannounced plays, he extends plays. He was on tonight. He made tons of plays tonight. He can pull the ball down and those strides start turning over and the next thing you know the guy’s got 25 yards. He is a weapon.”