Chris Smith

UL running back Chris Smith contributed an 87-yard kickoff return and this 10-yard touchdown run in the Cajuns' 20-18 road win over South Alabama on Saturday.

Over South Alabama’s first seven possessions in Saturday’s 20-18 loss to UL, its offense had two plays of 20 or more yards.

Over their final four possessions, the Jaguars collected four and, if not for a missed 37-yard field goal with 1:1 left, that group of electric plays almost produced a comeback win.

“With those skill players, I felt their quarterback threw it better in the vertical passing game than at any point we’ve seen so far this season,” UL coach Billy Napier said. “The combination of his arm and those receivers – that receivers group … regardless of what anybody’s thinks, Kane (Wommack) inherited a pretty daggone good roster. That’s a good-looking squad out there.”

Jaguars’ quarterback Jake Bentley finished the game 19-for-29 passing for 243 yards, but most of that game late in the game.

The run on big plays began with a 49-yard pass to Jalen Tolbert on the second play of South Alabama’s second scoring drive midway through the third period. Then the Jaguars orchestrated a perfectly-designed, 38-yard fake punt run by Keith Gallmon to set up South Alabama’s third touchdown.

On the final two drives, Bentley hit Tolbert for 61 yards and Jalen Wayne or 34 more to put the Jaguars in position for the upset.

“The play-pass, seven-man protection where they had a little time and threw it vertically, that’s where we had issues, but the typical drop-back, five-out empty game, we did a nice job of rushing the passer,” Napier explained. “That was part of the plan. You’ve got to give hats off to the quarterback now. The Bentley kid threw the vertical shots. I mean, how many did he hit in the game? Absolute strikes.”

Tolbert finished the game with six catches for 143 yards. Incredibly, USA’s receivers still haven’t caught a touchdown pass in four games this season.

“We knew going into the game that a big part the game was the receivers,” Napier said. “A lot of those running plays now, we’re doubling the receivers now. We were a little soft in the run game, but we’re taking away some of these skill players that they have.”

Block kick specialists

It’s getting to be a habit now for the Cajuns.

Trailing the Cajuns 20-0 with 1:33 left until halftime, South Alabama scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to get on the board, but Kendall Wilkerson blocked the extra point.

It was the second blocked extra point and the third blocked overall kick in the past two games.

“We work hard at it,” Napier said. “We install the first day of practice in training camp and then we keep working on it. There’s a lot of detail time and effort. (Defensive line assistant coach) Rory Segrest leads that unit with (special teams coordinator) Chris Couch’s help. It’s something that we consistently put an emphasis on. It’s a game-changing play. I’m proud of four kids and how they execute that.”

So even when the Jaguars were lining up for a potential game-winning field goal one half later, veteran defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill, who blocked an extra point against Georgia Southern last week, remained confident.

“We work field-goal block,” Hill said. “That’s something we’re big on. We work that a lot. We prepare for it. We prepared for the situation. We got enough pressure and we came out victorious, but shout-out to South Al for a great game.”

Conversion story

Outsiders viewing the boxscore after UL’s win Saturday might have a tough time figuring out exactly how the Cajuns survived their trip to Mobile.

In addition to being outgained 387-283, thanks to only 58 passing yards for the Cajuns, UL’s offense continued to struggle on third down.

The Cajuns only converted twice in 10 tries in the game, but did convert their only fourth-down attempt. Conversely, South Alabama’s offense somehow overcome relentless early pressure from UL’s pass rush to finished 6-of-17 on third down and 3-of-5 on fourth-down attempts.

Ups and downs

It was a roller coaster ride for UL’s special teams units in Saturday’s win.

On the down side, new starting placekicker Nate Snyder missed an extra point and two field goals in the first half.

Also, South Alabama pulled off a 38-yard fake punt run to set up the Jaguars’ third touchdown drive of the game.

Fortunately for UL, there was also plenty of upside to the kicking game. It began with Chris Smith’s 87-yard kickoff return that led to a quick 7-0 lead for the Cajuns. UL outgained the Jags 139-38 in hidden return yardage.

Moreover, helping the cause was punter Rhys Byrns who punted five times for a 50.8-yard average.

And safety Patrick Mensah stuffed out South Alabama’s first fake punt to set up a much-needed 31-yard touchdown drive for UL’s offense.


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.