STATESBORO, Ga. — It wasn’t that UL quarterback Levi Lewis and the rest of the Ragin’ Cajuns offense didn’t appreciate the defense’s effort with the game on the line in a 28-20 road win over Georgia Southern on Saturday.
The offense just didn't want to put that kind of burden on its defensive counterparts.
UL’s defense handled the situation by relentlessly pressuring Georgia Southern quarterback Justin Tomlin on his final two snaps to force a fourth turnover on downs with 44 seconds remaining at the Cajuns’ 38.
There were a lot of good things to say about every area of the UL squad after Saturday’s 28-20 road win against Georgia Southern.
“It’s a good thing that they came through, but I’m always mad that we can’t come through for our defense,” Lewis said. “Our defense had to go right back on the field (after) we had a three-and-out. It’s real tough on our end.”
The truth is UL’s defensive standouts were having a ball chasing Tomlin around the field at Allen E. Paulson Stadium.
“It was so fun, man,” UL defensive lineman Andre Jones said. “We played together. We had that chemistry going. Everybody was on the same page. That was really the fun thing. Then we were making plays and that put the icing on the cake right there.”
The defense certainly gave up more rushing yards than planned — 278 of 453 total yards — but it also produced a ton of big plays in key moments.
Defensive coordinator Patrick Toney’s unit was credited with three sacks, nine stops behind the line, a forced fumble, an interception, seven pass breakups and two hurries.
“Oh yeah, it was awesome to watch, man,” UL coach Billy Napier said. “We really challenged our front. When you play these teams, your front has to answer the bell over and over — at the point of attack and on the edges.
“We got the stops when it mattered, and none more important than how hard we played and how well we executed right there at the end.”
The defense forced Georgia Southern to turn it over on downs four times in the second half.
UL’s special teams have had their ups and downs thus far this season. The kicking game was certainly on point Saturday at Georgia Southern.
That effort was especially gratifying for senior linebacker Ferrod Gardner, who led the team with 11 tackles, two stops behind the line and half a sack after missing the previous two games with an injury.
“It was a blessing to be out here,” Gardner said. “It was a very humbling experience to be out those two games and not be able to participate. So to be able to come out here and leave the field with a ‘W’ with my guys, it’s just a great feeling.”
So no, the defense wasn’t upset about having to deliver the finishing blow.
“You want to go out there and make plays and just be an impact player on the team,” Gardner said. “When it’s crunch time and the game’s on the line, you want to be the guy they call on. You want to be the guy coach Toney calls a play for. Whatever the situation may be, you want to go out there and make a play for the guys.
“I wanted to be a guy they can count on. It was good that we finished the way we did.”
Even though the offense punted on four straight possessions with a chance to put the Eagles away in the second half, it wasn’t like it didn’t contribute heavily to the win.
The biggest bright spot was the deep passing game, which was a major point of emphasis throughout the offseason.
Lewis was 17-of-28 passing for 249 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
“We need to do that more often,” Napier said of the long TD passes. “I felt like we weren’t doing it enough. We had another down there on that sidelines that I felt like we could have made a play and then their backside corner made a heck of a play – almost picked one.
“But we’re behind them. No. 1 (Lewis), really that’s an area we’ve worked on and on and he threw two absolute strikes — great routes, great catches.”
Lewis completed a 48-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jefferson in the first quarter to tie it at 7-7, then a 46-yarder to Dontae Fleming for a 28-13 lead with 6:52 left in the third quarter.
“We always want to put a big emphasis on knowing our personnel, knowing our guys,” Lewis said. “So Skinny (Michael Jefferson) and Dontae (Fleming), our guys are fast, so you’ve got to put it out there. If you don’t put it out there, it’s going to be under thrown.”
Very little went well for the offense besides those three TD passes. Rhys Byrns punted seven times and UL also turned it over on downs on its side of the 50.
“When we’re going to look back at this game, we’re going to say that we had chances to make it two score, three score, and we didn’t,” Napier said. “That’s where we’ve got to improve. A little of it is me. I made a few really bad calls, in my opinion, today. I can do better for the players. There’s a handful I would like to have back today.”
Eight of Georgia Southern’s final nine drives ended in UL territory, but only two of them ended in points thanks to a blocked field goal, a Percy Butler interception and four turnovers on downs.
“I can’t say enough about how our defense responded, in particular in the second half,” Napier said.