MONROE — It was fitting that the most maligned segment of UL-Lafayette’s football team was on the field at the end Saturday.
The Cajuns defense, one that struggled in a 1-3 start, bent but did not break against UL-Monroe’s offense in the second half, and got the season’s biggest stop when it was most needed in the Cajuns’ 31-28 win that locked up the Sun Belt Conference West Division title and a sixth bowl-game trip in eight seasons.
That unit gave up drives of 62, 76 and 65 yards in the second half and allowed a total of 217 yards after halftime, but came up with two turnovers in the third period and allowed only a lone touchdown in the final five minutes. Then, when ULM drove to the Cajuns 14 in the closing seconds and threatened to push across a winning touchdown, they forced a last-play 36-yard field goal that Warhawks kicker Craig Ford pushed wide right.
“For the game to come down to our hands, that let us show what we’re capable of and show what we’ve been working on,” said cornerback Michael Jacquet, the converted wide receiver whose third-quarter end-zone interception ended a drive at the Cajuns 3 when ULM could have taken its first lead. “The whole week we were taking about taking the ball, getting the ball out, turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Tonight we showed we were attacking the ball.
The host Warhawks rallied from a 21-7 deficit with two second-quarter touchdowns, one of them a defensive score when Corey Straughter returned an interception 66 yards to cut the margin to 24-21 at halftime.
Jacquet’s interception and linebacker Justin Middleton’s strip and fumble recovery, both inside the UL-Lafayette 20, kept the Warhawks from taking the lead in the second half. The Cajuns drove 79 yards to their final score after Middleton's recovery early in the fourth quarter, which proved to be huge when ULM had two late drives for the touchdown and the final field goal miss.
“Give our defense some credit,” coach Billy Napier said. “That’s one of the better offensive groups in this league. They have some great weapons and a really good quarterback, and I think we did a good job for the most part containing him. We covered their guys pretty well.”
ULM quarterback Caleb Evans was held to 201 yards passing and 24 yards rushing. The junior had accounted for more than 3,400 yards in ULM’s first 11 games, but on Saturday the Cajun defense held ULM to 12 or fewer yards on six of their 11 possessions.
“We had to answer some adversity and get after the quarterback,” linebacker Chaiziere Malbrue said. “He’s their team, so we had to keep the pressure on him. The old saying is defense wins games, and that’s what we had to do.”
“He’s a great player, but our coaches had a great game plan and we were able to execute it,” Jacquet said. “We had to finish. The offense kept us in the game in the first half, in the second half it came down to us.”