Things were going in the wrong direction for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns by the fourth quarter Saturday, but just a few inches made everything better.
South Alabama kicker Diego Guajardo missed a potential game-winning field goal from 37 yards by a foot to the right to allow UL to escape with a 20-18 victory over the Jaguars at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama.
“I put all my faith in God and the D-line to either go block the kick or them miss,” UL running back Emani Bailey said. “Just put it all on God, and that’s what happened.”
The Cajuns now have won six straight over the Jaguars (3-1, 0-1), and coach Billy Napier is now 13-0 against Sun Belt West opponents.
“It ain’t pretty, but the Ragin’ Cajuns are finding ways to win — the collective effort of the offense, defense and special teams,” Napier said. “I’m proud of this team. One thing about this team, there’s no lack of togetherness or toughness. They play through the adversity. It’s almost like they expect to win.”
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There was every reason early on to expect the victory.
Chris Smith returned the opening kickoff 87 yards to the Jags’ 13. Three plays later, he scored on a 10-yard run for a 7-0 lead 58 seconds into the game.
UL’s running game worked like a charm on its second possession as well, marching 57 yards in four plays. Runs of 13 and 14 yards from Bailey set up a 22-yard touchdown run by Levi Lewis for a 14-0 lead with 11:10 left in the first quarter.
The Cajuns forced four punts and stopped South Alabama on a fake punt during the Jaguars’ first five possessions.
The short field paid off huge after Patrick Mensah stuffed South Alabama punter Jack Brooks for negative 2 yards on the fake punt attempt.
Bailey ran for 16 and then 15 for a 31-yard touchdown drive with 11:23 left in the second quarter. The only problem is the extra point was missed to keep UL’s lead at 20-0.
That’s when frustration set in for the Cajuns, which wasted a drive that started at the South Alabama 45 with a three-and-out, then an 11-play, 54-yard drive was spoiled by a missed 43-yard field goal.
"I'll have to look at each possession," Napier said of the offense's drought. "I know that we had opportunities. They got us in second-and-long quite a bit after we got to 20.
“We’ve got to finish. We missed two field goals and an extra point, and then got multiple opportunities in the second half and just not able to do it. That’s my responsibility. I’m the coach. We’ll get better. We’ll improve.”
The offense had a chance to rebuild a safe cushion but missed out.
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.
After the Jaguars trimmed UL’s lead to 20-12 with 4:20 left in the third quarter, the Cajuns appeared intent on rushing the ball like it had so effectively with 154 rushing yards in the first half against the No. 4 rushing defense in the nation.
But freshman running back Montrell Johnson fumbled at the South Alabama 45 after UL had picked up 38 yards on the ground.
“I challenge the players on the sidelines, ‘Show up, show up,’ ” defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill said. “That’s what I need out of y’all — effort. That’s the biggest thing.
“I walk up and down the sidelines the whole game. Tell the offense and defense, ‘We need y’all’ on every play.' It doesn’t matter what drive it is or what play it is. That could be the difference in the game.”
The defense soaked up the encouragement.
After a 38-yard fake punt by Keith Gallmon led to a Jake Bentley touchdown run with 12:51 left to play to cut UL's lead to 20-18, the Cajuns sacked Bentley on the two-point conversion try.
“We did a good job of affecting the quarterback throughout the game in passing downs in particular,” Napier said.
With the Jaguars facing a fourth-and-1 from the UL 4 with 6:20 left to play, pressure forced Bentley to throw an errant, incomplete pass to a wide-open receiver in the end zone that allowed the Cajuns to maintain their two-point lead.
“It was an unbelievable play,” Napier said. “We’re affecting the quarterback. It was a little bit of a bad snap. We got just enough on the guy to affect the throw, and all of a sudden we’re off the field.”
The defense didn’t wilt on the final drive, forcing the field goal attempt from 37 yards. Guajardo’s effort barely missed.
“Overall, there’s going to be a lot that we can look at here and learn from, but 2-0 in the league and 1-0 in the West and back to work,” Napier said.