“Smoke ‘em, if you got ‘em.”
That’s what UL-Lafayette first-year coach Billy Napier told his football team in the locker room, only moments after the Ragin’ Cajuns had locked up the Sun Belt Conference West Division title with a stirring 31-28 win over state rival UL-Monroe.
Napier made sure his guys had ‘em.
The Cajuns had come to Monroe armed with more than 100 cigars, to be broken out should the Cajuns lock up a berth in Saturday’s inaugural Sun Belt championship game. When UL-Monroe’s late drive ended deep in Cajuns territory, and Craig Ford’s 36-yard last-play field goal sailed wide right, it was time to light up.
Napier, who doesn’t shy away from using Alabama’s program as a model after his two stints on the Crimson Tide staff, said this was another motivational idea taken from Tuscaloosa and is something he wants to make a tradition for the ULM series.
“It’s a unique opportunity, something I had the chance to take part in at Alabama with the Tennessee game, and we wanted to create some more significance to this rivalry for our players and staff," Napier said. "It’s something we’re going to try to do each year for this game. If we win, like I told the players, smoke 'em if you got 'em, and we got 'em tonight.”
UL-Lafayette (7-5, 5-3) had more than cigars on the line Saturday. The Cajuns controlled their West Division destiny but needed a win to reach Saturday’s title game trip to Appalachian State. A loss would likely have ended their season, with the Sun Belt boasting five seven-win teams for its five bowl tie-ins and 81 bowl-eligible teams gunning for 78 available slots.
“This team deserves this,” said quarterback Andre Nunez. “We put a lot of hard work into this year. We were able to take advantage of the matchups when they went to press coverages, and the defense gave us the ball back so many times.
“In the second half, we should have put up more points and had more production, but knowing each of us has to do our job and the defense had our back. It’s good knowing that.”
Nunez hit his first nine passes and threw for three scores in the first 19 minutes and led that offense past the 300-yard mark five minutes before halftime when Kyle Pfau’s 37-yard field goal provided a 24-14 lead. It looked like UL-Lafayette was going in for more, before Corey Slaughter’s 66-yard interception return kept the Warhawks within 24-21 at halftime.
Both offenses sputtered in the second half, but the Cajuns took advantage of a Justin Middleton strip and fumble recovery that set up Levi Lewis’ 40-yard screen pass touchdown to Elijah Mitchell for a 31-21 lead with 11:49 left.
From there on, it was left to the Cajuns defense to hold on.
“They really gave up only three scores to one of the better offensive groups in this league,” Napier said. “Like most weeks we’ll look and say we could have done some things better, but I’m very pleased with the progress that we’ve made on defense.”
Nunez and Lewis combined for only four incompletions (Lewis was 6-of-6) for 213 yards and the four touchdowns. Running back Trey Ragas didn’t score, but the sophomore rushed for 115 yards to make him the ninth Cajun to rush for 1,000 yards. He also had his sixth 100-yard game of the season, tying the school mark done twice by Tyrell Fenroy.
The win finished off a sweep of UL-Lafayette’s West Division foes and sends the Cajuns back to Boone, North Carolina and a rematch with Appalachian State. The Mountaineers, who won the East Division Saturday with a 21-10 win over Troy in a winner-take-all game, defeated the Cajuns 27-17 on Oct. 20. That loss and a 26-16 loss at Troy were UL-Lafayette’s only setbacks in its past eight games.
“It’s the same approach for us,” Napier said of Saturday’s 11 a.m. ESPN game. “We have to win it in advance. We’re playing a really good team that I have a lot of respect for how they play on both sides. It’s awesome to me that it’s the first Sun Belt championship, and we get the chance to partake in that.”