LEXINGTON, Ky. — Brooks Haack started and finished at quarterback for Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday night.
In between, it was clear why he’d had to work so hard to beat out Jalen Nixon.
The Ragin’ Cajuns quarterbacks — locked in a battle for the starting spot that lasted all preseason camp — each had their moments in a 40-33 loss at Kentucky, but it was Nixon who led his team to the brink of a signature upset at Commonwealth Stadium.
“It was sort of like a pitcher: We’d been throwing a certain pitch the whole game, and then we came with the changeup and threw the curveball,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “It paid off for us there in the second half.”
Inserted in the third quarter, Nixon led three touchdown drives to erase a 33-10 Kentucky lead, the third with a dazzling play of his own — a 23-yard touchdown run that, coupled with running back Elijah McGuire’s two-point conversion run, tied the score at 33 with 3:43 to play.
“I honestly thought we had the momentum as a team,” Nixon said. “At their home turf, it kind of got quiet in the stands, so I felt like we could have possibly took over the game at that moment. They came back and got the critical stop.”
The Wildcats answered with a nine-play, 58-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown run from Mikel Horton to go in front 40-33 with 57 seconds left. Haack returned in a passing situation and went 4-for-7 to move the Cajuns to their own 42 before he was intercepted at the Kentucky 10-yard line on the game’s final play.
Nixon finished the game 4-for-4 passing for 38 yards. He ran five times for 37 yards and a touchdown.
Haack started the game and finished 22-for-37 for 194 yards with no touchdowns and two picks. He led drives of 75, 75 and 61 yards, but only one of those resulted in a touchdown.
So late in the third quarter — with the Cajuns trailing by three scores — Hudspeth went to Nixon.
Though he passed sparingly, he gave the offense a spark.
Nixon quarterbacked all but two plays of a five-play, 74-yard third-quarter scoring drive that ended with a 56-yard touchdown run by running back Torrey Pierce.
He followed that with an eight-play, 71-yard drive that resulted in a 26-yard touchdown run from Pierce and a two-point conversion pass from Nixon to McGuire.
Nixon capped the scoring surge with his own touchdown run.
But the magic ran out on Nixon’s final drive at quarterback. He completed one five-yard pass in a four-play drive that resulted in a punt, and the Wildcats marched 58 yards in nine plays to take the lead for good on their ensuing drive.
Haack completed one of his first six passes, then connected on nine of his next 11, including an 18-yard completion to receiver Jamal Robinson, who caught the ball inside the Kentucky 10-yard line, tried to stretch for extra yards and had it stripped for a fumble the Wildcats recovered at the 5.
Midway through the third quarter, Haack’s 43-yard completion to McGuire on the right sideline put the Cajuns deep in Kentucky territory, and two plays later, Haack’s 6-yard run came up just short of the goal line. But a false start and a sack of Haack forced the Cajuns to kick a field goal to cap a seven-play, 61-yard drive, cutting the Wildcats’ lead to 27-10.
Kentucky scored on its ensuing possession to go up 33-10, and while Haack took the field for the Cajuns’ next drive, he took two snaps before Nixon took over. He’d remain the quarterback until the Cajuns’ final possession, when Haack’s Hail Mary landed in the hands of Kentucky linebacker Josh Forrest.
Haack ended the game at quarterback, where he began it. But it was clear over the course of the night why the position battle had lingered so long, and why there might be value in the Cajuns playing Haack and Nixon.
“Me and Brooks, we always help each other out,” Nixon said. “We work together on and off the field. He sees things I don’t see. I see things he don’t see. We alert each other. Just being mentally prepared and helping each other really makes the game a lot easier.”