The UL Ragin’ Cajuns knew they needed to play their best game of the season to knock off Appalachian State on Tuesday at Cajun Field.
Instead, coach Billy Napier’s squad played one of its best games during his four-year tenure by beating the Mountaineers 41-13 on national television.
“I feel like we dominated,” UL senior quarterback Levi Lewis said. “We didn’t play in spurts. We played all four quarters. We finished the fourth quarter. We started fast like we wanted to. I feel like it was a great team win.”
The win improved UL to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in Sun Belt play, while Appalachian State dropped to 4-2 and 1-1.
The Cajuns hope the victory puts them in position to host a conference championship game down the road. If UL and Coastal Carolina both run the table, the Cajuns still would have to travel to South Carolina for the game because the Chanticleers currently are ranked higher.
“It was a good win and one we can all be proud of,” Napier said. “I thought we played the game the right way in all areas of our team.”
For the second straight week, the Cajuns started fast … really fast.
Lewis hit Kyren Lacy on a 55-yard pass on the game’s second play from scrimmage. That set up Lewis for a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead.
UL’s next drive covered 87 yards, thanks to a Montrell Johnson 36-yard run and then a nifty 36-yard pass to Michael Jefferson on the next play.
Three plays later, Lewis connected with Lacy for a 2-yard touchdown pass. It was the first score of Lacy’s career at Cajun Field.
“He always tells me, ‘Lee, I’ve got to score. I’ve got to score at home,’” Lewis said. “I think it was a good thing to get him going.”
The Cajuns led 20-0 at the end of the first quarter thanks to Percy Butler’s fumble recovery that led to a Chris Smith 1-yard touchdown run.
It was the second straight game with a 20-0 lead. Last time, UL held off South Alabama 20-18. This time, the Mountaineers never were threatened.
“For the season, we had been starting fast but not finishing strong,” UL junior cornerback Eric Garror said. “So we harped on that every day all throughout the week — start fast and just keep finishing, keep finishing and just finish strong. We did a good job with that (Tuesday).”
Garror got the second half off to a good start with an interception he returned 21 yards to the ASU 19 to set up Smith’s 21-yard touchdown run for a 27-6 lead.
“I seen the formation they had,” Garror said of the interception. “They had two receivers at first and then motioned back over to trips. Then they did like a little dagger route combination. I just saw him with my eyes, picked it off and took it.”
Butler’s fumble recovery and Garror’s interception were two of four turnovers forced by the Cajuns. UL hadn’t collected more than one turnover in any of its first five games. Safety Brandon Bishop had the other interception and linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill the other fumble recovery.
The UL defense limited the Mountaineers to a season-low 211 yards and 76 yards rushing. Appalachian State didn’t convert one of its 11 chances on third down.
“The big thing is we’ve got a great staff,” Napier said. “I told (announcer) Jay Walker earlier I wouldn’t rather go to battle with anybody other than Patrick Toney in a big game like this, man. I just know how hard the guy works, I know how bright he is, I know how competitive he is. His leadership along with that defensive staff … they have high expectations.”
UL dominated possession as well, keeping it 36:32 compared to 23:28 for the visitors.
Much of the offense’s emphasis during the offseason was improving on the unit’s deep passing game.
In three trips into UL’s red zone, Appalachian State scored one touchdown.
“That group’s been lighting it up on offense now,” Napier said of the Mountaineers. “Let’s call it like it is, and I think we held them to (211) yards. Not only that, but we got takeaways. We forced two field goals, critical stops. The game is different if they get touchdowns in those red-zone possessions in the first half.”
Johnson became the first 100-yard back of the season for the Cajuns, with 103 yards and a score on 14 carries. Smith added 85 yards on 13 tries. As a team, UL rushed for 246 yards behind another good performance by the offensive line.
“I love those guys,” Lewis said of the offensive line. “They play a big role, a big part of our offense. They go to work every day. Some guys nicked up. Hats off to those guys. They prepare for difficult times like this. I love those guys.”
For the first time this season, UL’s offense converted more than 50% of its third downs at 8 for 15.
“I believe we really played Ragin’ Cajuns football (Tuesday),” Garror said. “We had some mistakes. We’re going to have mistakes every game. I believe we came out there and executed and played hard.”