LAFAYETTE — Slow and steady might win the race, but scoring quickly and often was the victory formula for Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday against South Alabama.
Ja’Marcus Bradley and Elijah Mitchell scored three touchdowns apiece to counteract South Alabama’s ball-control domination in a 48-38 Sun Belt Conference victory at Cajun Field.
UL-Lafayette (6-5, 4-3) climbed above the .500 mark for the first time since a season opening victory against Grambling and became bowl-eligible despite an 85-52 edge in plays run and being outgained 477-407.
The victory also puts the Cajuns into three-way tie for the SLC West Division lead with Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas State at 4-3. Cajuns can clinch a share of the title and a berth in the championship game with a victory at UL-Monroe next week.
“It’s the next step, you check that box,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said of being bowl eligible. “We’ve got bigger ambitions.”
South Alabama (2-9, 1-6) twice erased 10-point leads but could never take the lead. Bradley caught a 17-yard scoring pass from Andre Nunez to make it 10-0 in the first quarter and gave the Cajuns a 24-10 lead with two more in the second of 44 and 1 yards, from Lei Lewis and Nunez, respectively.
Mitchell’s 45-yard scoring run in the third quarter gave the Cajuns the lead for good at 31-24, and his 1-yard run expanded the lead to 41-24 at the end of the third quarter. The Cajuns played some ball control of their own in the fourth quarter with a 5:13 drive capped by Mitchell’s 3-yard TD run.
The Cajuns forced three turnovers on defense but couldn’t get the visitors off the field. At one point the play disparity was 57-22. They also had some untimely penalties and were flagged six times for 66 yards.
“Defensively I don’t think we played to our potential today,” Napier said. “Certainly there are a lot of things we have to fix from an adjustment standpoint, a tackling standpoint, getting off the field on third down. We lost our poise and had a few too many penalties.
“We’re not going to be happy with the score and the stats but we made critical plays when we needed to,” he added.
South Alabama had scoring drives of 20, 15 and 13 plays in the first half and converted five fourth downs.
UL-Lafayette did answer the challenge. After USA tied the game at 10, Raymond Calais’ returned the ensuing kickoff 54 yards and Lewis hit Bradley for a 44-yard score on the next snap.
Rather than turn the ball back over to the Jaguars, Napier caught them by surprise with an onside kick. Kicker Kyle Pfau tapped the ball straight ahead and cradled it just after it crossed the 10-yard mark.
Nunez threw pass completions of 18 yards to Jalen Williams and 26 to Earnest Patterson to set up a 2-yard TD pass to Bradley with 2:04 left in the half to make it 24-10.. Bradley wide open in the back right corner of the end zone on third down.