Louisiana-Lafayette Georgia St Football

UL running back Elijah Mitchell cuts back on the defense of Georgia State on Saturday, September 19, 2020, in Atlanta. 

ATLANTA — With all the effort, emotion and endurance it requires to carry an offense on your back in an overtime period after four quarters of football, UL senior running back Elijah Mitchell thought it was finally over.

Down by two touchdowns twice and on the verge of losing late in regulation several times, Mitchell broke loose for what looked like a game-winning, 15-yard touchdown run.

Or so he thought.

The officials ruled Georgia State had called timeout just before the snap.

Somehow, Mitchell had enough left in the tank two plays later when he duplicated the effort with a 12-yard, game-winning run to propel the No. 19-ranked Ragin’ Cajuns to a dramatic come-from-behind 34-31 win over the Panthers at Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta.

“When that happened, I was kind of like, ‘Man, oh, this is crazy,’ but you just have to keep that mentality,” Mitchell said. “You’ve just got to believe in the O-line. I believed in myself that I could make the right cut to get in the end zone for the second time.”

Perhaps it was fitting the game’s conclusion played out that way.

The season’s first six quarters hadn’t treated Mitchell very kindly.

After leaving the first game twice with injuries and settling for 46 yards rushing in the game, Mitchell only had 18 on six carries in the first half Saturday in Atlanta.

Something changed. In a big way.

In addition to his winning run in overtime, Mitchell’s second-half explosion resulted in him finishing with 164 yards and two scores on 16 carries.

“Really, I try not to think about that,” Mitchell said of the slow start. “We put in a plan that it’s going to come in sooner or later. The time came where we made adjustments and it started happening in the second half.

“The offensive line really stepped it up in the second half, and we made it happen.”

It also required offensive play-caller coach Billy Napier to stick with Mitchell and the running game.

“I think you’ve got to mix it up,” Napier said. “They did a good job on defense, presenting some new concepts. I thought they were well-prepared. I thought we put together a second-half plan and went out and executed much better. Outside of the interception there on the first possession, there were a lot of good things in the second half.”

And a few of good things in the first half — first by the defense and then by the offense.

Georgia State’s offense proved up to the challenge early on. Redshirt freshman quarterback Cornelious Brown’s 12-yard TD run and 28-yard touchdown pass to Roger Carter earned the Panthers a 14-0 lead with 1:25 left in the second quarter.

The Panthers were driving again when Cajuns sophomore Mekhi Garner grabbed an interception at UL's 20 with 3:16 left until halftime.

“I caught the pick and it sparked the offense, knowing that we were still in the game,” said Garner, who was making his first start because AJ Washington did not make the trip with COVID-19 issues. “The game hadn’t pulled away. It was still what, the second quarter, something like that. As soon as I caught that pick, the offense scored and it just kind of sparked us. It sparked the whole team.”

Levi Lewis and company responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive in 1:43 to get on the board and the barnburner was on.

One play before Lewis connected with Chris Smith on a 21-yard touchdown pass to get the Cajuns on the board, came another critical play to keep the drive alive.

Facing a fourth-and-10 from UL’s 42, Lewis escaped a heavy rush and found Devon Pauley, who made a circus catch in traffic for 19 yards.

“We were in four-down mode, so no matter what, I didn’t want to take a sack,” said Lewis, who was 21-of-37 passing for 279 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. “Pauley came through and made a hell of a catch. Pauley came through for me. Pauley and I have been bettering our connection for so long, even in two-minute.

“Pauley is good to me. He knows how to get open. He knows the scrimmage drill. He’s basically on the same page as me. We’re in sync. We think alike.”

Then it was about getting just enough stops and more than enough Mitchell the rest of the way.

In Georgia State’s final seven possessions, they punted five times, settled a field goal in overtime and scored a touchdown.

“Obviously not a perfect day by any means in any phase, but to have the resolve to get some of the stops on defense — I thought some of the stops on defense in the second half were critical — and then find a way to win in overtime,” Napier said.

The most critical play came late in regulation after Lewis was sacked at his own 46 with 1:41 left and the game tied at 28.

“I didn’t want to take a sack right there,” Lewis said of the sack. “I didn’t want to force it either. I did a bad job on getting the sack right there, but the defense did a great stop.”

The rest of it was pretty much all Mitchell, who followed a 59-yard touchdown run in the third quarter with a 53-yard run down the 1 to set up a Trey Ragas touchdown.

“I ran that play before and I knew the defense knew that I was going to try to go front side, but that back side was working,” Mitchell said of his long TD run. “They just washed them down and I just saw it, so I hit it as fast as I could.”

Napier’s offense end up with the balance he wanted — 240 rushing and 279 passing for 519 yards total.

“We knew we just had to stay the course and keep our poise,” Napier said. “We knew the game plan. They did exactly what we practiced. We just had to stay the course and keep chopping wood.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.