After giving away opportunity after opportunity for three quarters, UL's football team faced its first loss to a Sun Belt Conference West Division team under Billy Napier.
Fortunately for the Ragin’ Cajuns, South Alabama gave away two even easier chances in the final seven minutes, and the Cajuns are 2-0 and still atop the West.
The Jaguars botched a fourth-and-1 when quarterback Jake Bentley’s hurried pass in the end zone fell in front of wide-open tight end Lincoln Sefcik.
The other South Alabama hiccup came with 1:06 left when kicker Diego Guajardo — who was perfect on the season at 4 for 4, including three from more than 40 yards — pushed a potential winning field goal just outside the right upright from 37 yards. That let UL quarterback Levi Lewis kneel as the Cajuns escaped with a 20-18 win.
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.
“We just weren’t able to put much together,” Napier said. “In the second quarter, we missed two field goals and a PAT. We had a chance to create some momentum and we were just sputtering, miss a field goal, move it a little bit and miss a field goal. All of a sudden we look up going in the locker room and it’s a game.”
The Cajuns had a 14-0 lead less than four minutes into it, and led 20-0 with 11:23 left before halftime, but never scored again. Kicker Nate Snyder, pressed into duty with regular Kenneth Almendares sidelined with a hip injury, misfired on field goals of 43 and 42 yards, and he also missed the extra point after Emani Bailey’s 15-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
Even with the kicking-game miscues, the Cajuns were in position to take control because of their running game — even though they didn’t have nearly as many rushing chances as they’d like. UL had only 30 rushing plays minus the kneel downs out of a mere 49 offensive plays overall.
Bailey finished with 81 yards rushing on only seven carries along with the second-period score. All of his four first-half carries were for 13 or more yards, but he and the Cajuns had only 10 rushing plays in the second half.
“It’s very frustrating, stressful sometimes, but that’s the game of football,” Bailey said of the Cajuns’ up-and-down running performance. “At the end of the day when we come together and play as one, we were able to pull through. I was ready to be a team player, keep attacking every opportunity I get.”
Napier credited South Alabama’s rush defense, a unit that came in allowing only 55.3 yards per game to rank fourth nationally.
“We ran it well at times, but then they made it a little harder,” Napier said. “I felt like coming in we needed to throw it because of how they (South Alabama) play. The conditions affected that at times, but overall I felt like we needed to throw it to move it consistently.”
Much of the game was played in a drizzling rain, which didn’t help the offensive flow for either team. The Cajuns had only four offensive possessions in the second half, with three of them ending in punts and one ending in a Montrell Johnson fumble near midfield — the game’s only turnover.
“We kept giving the ball back to them, and our defense did a fantastic job of getting stops,” Napier said. “Fourth-down stops, made them miss two field goals. It ain’t pretty, but we’re finding ways to win, the collective effort of offense, defense and special teams.”
The Jaguars had 276 yards in the second half, and scored on drives of 78 and 55 yards on back-to-back possessions. Bentley’s fourth-down, 1-yard burst with 12:51 pulled the Jaguars within 20-18, but heavy pressure from UL’s defense thwarted the potential tying two-point conversion.
Two deep strikes from Bentley, one a 61-yarder to Jalen Tolbert and one a 34-yard shot to Jalen Wayne, in South Alabama's final two drives set up scoring chances that didn’t blossom.
“Our guys play through the adversity,” Napier said. “It’s almost like they expect to win. There’s a poise regardless of what people think is going on, they line up and play and find different ways to win. I’m proud of our players in terms of how they handled the adversity of the second half.”