In the end, the No. 16-ranked UL Ragin’ Cajuns produced what the preseason expectations were for this squad.
The Cajuns ran it and ran it and ran it.
When things got tough, the Cajuns leaned even harder on their running backs and they delivered.
Fittingly, senior running back Trey Ragas accounted for the game-winning score with a 1-yard touchdown plunge midway through the final period to lift UL to a 31-24 victory over the UTSA Roadrunners in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl on Saturday at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
It was even more fitting fellow senior running back Elijah Mitchell was named as the game’s Most Valuable Player after another gutsy performance in Saturday’s win.
"It was very important," Mitchell said of winning with win for the Cajuns (10-1). "We've been through so much.
"We just put it in our minds that we just wanted this year to be great no matter what the circumstances were. We just kept going at it."
Mitchell broke a school record for rushing yards in a game with 127 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
He also caught two passes for 45 yards in the win.
In fact, it was a 36-yard reception on the second play of the game-winning drive that put the Cajuns in position for the winning margin.
“I had my boy out there J-Will (Jalen Williams) blocking, so I knew as soon as I caught it, I'll be able to have some space,” Mitchell said of the long reception. "I love when I'm in the open like that. I like to move in certain ways. It was exciting for me."
It wasn’t that the passing game didn’t play a role in the Cajuns’ win. After running it six straight times in the game’s first drive, quarterback Levi Lewis connected with Kyren Lacy for 15 yards and then with Jalen Williams on a 15-yard touchdown .
Later in the half, Lewis connected with Lacy on a 10-yard touchdown reception for a 17-7 lead with 1:21 left until intermission.
But each time things got tough for the Cajuns, it was the running game that provided stability.
Ragas finished with 98 yards and a score on 14 carries to help the offense run for 265 yards in addition to 146 passing for 411 total yards.
“There's no question that part of the plan was we were going to have to rush the ball effectively,” Napier said. "We felt like the matchups were well, the checkers were in the right places and those are things that we're good at - a lot of the concepts that we ran today. And they played well."
It looked like the Cajuns might have a much easier time with the win in the third quarter. When UTSA quarterback Frank Harris fumbled a snap and inadvisably attempt a backwards pass to bail out the play, UL linebacker Ferrod Gardner recovered it at the Roadrunners’ 3.
“You throw in the fact that it’s been a four-and-a-half week break, which is typical of bowl season sometimes,” said UTSA interim coach Barry Lunney, who was filling in for head coach Jeff Traylor out because of COVID-19 issues. “The two highest priorities you’re concerned about is turnovers and ball-handling on offense and tackling on defense. I know offensively, those two things affected the outcome of the game. The two turnovers we had were very detrimental to the game.”
Mitchel did the honors with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 24-7 lead just 37 seconds into the second half.
And when UL’s defense forced a punt on the ensuing drive, all signs pointed toward a Cajuns’ pleasure cruise.
Two plays after a Ragas 13-yard run got UL to the UTSA 32, Ragas lost a fumble and the game dramatically shifted.
Harris took full advantage of his chance at redemption. First, there was a 29-yard touchdown pass to Zakhari Franklin to cut it to 24-14 with 10:14 left in the third.
He later added a 10-yard scoring toss to Joshua Cephus with 4:09 left in the fourth to get even closer at 24-21.
About that time, UL’s offense began to stall with punter Rhys Byrns participating in the game for the first time with back-to-back punts.
A 29-yard run by Sincere McCormick and a 21-yard pass to Oscar Cardenas got the Roadrunners to first-and-goal at the 7.
But the Cajuns’ defense dug deep at that point and forced a 20-yard field goal to tie it at 24-24 with 13:32 left to play. We do a good-on-good period at the beginning of practice every Wednesday as an emphasis for us.
“It's a big part of our formula to win,” Napier said of forcing a field goal. "We talk about being situation experts.
"I thought one of the big plays in the game there (second down run by QB Frank Harris for one yard) was they ran zone read and I thought we did a nice job there ... got the guy on the ground and created a passing situation."
With the pressure on, UL’s offense responded with a 12-play, 72-yard drive in 6:09 to take the lead for good.
A 3-yard run by Mitchell got a critical first down to the UTSA 10 on the drive came three plays before the game-winning score by Ragas.
UL’s defense essentially secured the win by forcing a turnover on downs at the UL 35 with 4:37 left to play.
“We had some guys open I think,” Looney said. “I’d have to go back and watch it. It’s hard to see from the field. Certainly was disappointed when we were driving. Those are the critical junctures of the game. We did not execute in the critical junctures of the game. When you do that against a really good team, you don’t win and that’s what happened today.”