MONROE — All Andre Nunez could do was watch and hope. But UL-Lafayette’s quarterback had confidence in the Cajuns defense.
“I’ve got faith in that defense,” Nunez said after UL-Monroe’s Craig Ford missed a 36-yard field goal on the game’s final play Saturday, giving the Cajuns a pulsating 31-28 victory. “Before they went out, they said they had my back, so I believed in them 100 percent.”
That defense held the Warhawks to one second-half touchdown and made a stop on ULM’s final drive in the last two minutes, helping the Cajuns hang on for a win that gave them the Sun Belt Conference West Division title. The Cajuns (7-5, 5-3), who also locked down a bowl berth with the regular-season-finale win, will travel to face East Division winner Appalachian State in next Saturday’s inaugural Sun Belt championship game.
“Our team continued to focus on improving all season,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said. “We’ve been in playoff mode for three weeks trying to get in this position, and (Saturday) was a good representation of the progress that we’ve made and what type brotherhood we have.”
Nunez led that brotherhood with three touchdown passes in the game’s first 19 minutes, staking UL-Lafayette to a 21-7 lead while completing his first nine passes. The Cajuns had 305 yards on their first four possessions and led 24-14 on a 37-yard Kyle Pfau field goal, but ULM (6-6, 4-4) rallied thanks to a huge defensive play.
That came just 2:25 before halftime, when cornerback Corey Straughter jumped in front of an out route and took an interception 66 yards to pull ULM within 24-21.
“If we don’t throw the pick six and we’re able to get points in that possession, we could have gotten the game under control,” Napier said. We still gave them hope, gave them a pulse. We have to learn how to finish when we get opportunities to do that.”
It was the Warhawks that had a chance to finish behind quarterback Caleb Evans. ULM took over at its own 16 with 2:07 left, but five completions by Evans moved the ball to the Cajuns 14 in the final 20 seconds. A formation penalty and a throw out of the end zone ran the clock down to four seconds and forced the Warhawks to go for a tying field goal.
But Ford pushed it wide right, setting off a Cajuns celebration.
“I’m the jumper on field goal block,” said cornerback Michael Jacquet, who had a second-half interception in his own end zone to stifle a ULM drive. “It went past to my left, and when I turned around I knew he’d missed it.”
“I thought Craig hit it good,” ULM coach Matt Viator said. “It was just off the right hash and he barely missed it. I had a great angle at it, and you wanted it to hook and it just hung there.”
Before the interception — the Cajuns’ only turnover — Nunez was all but perfect including a 40-yard scoring strike to Ryheem Malone on the game’s fourth offensive play. He and Malone had hooked up for 30 yards two plays earlier, part of a streak in which UL-Lafayette gained double-digit yards on five of its first seven snaps.
Moments later, the Cajuns came back with a 90-yard march keyed by Trey Ragas’ 31-yard ramble to the ULM 17, and after an alignment penalty negated a 1-yard Elijah Mitchell score — and Napier picked up a 15-yard unsportsmanlike flag — Napier hit Ja’Marcus Bradley with a 20-yard fade route for a 14-0 lead 10 minutes into the game.
In all, the Cajuns had 184 yards on 15 offensive plays in the first period, but ULM answered behind Evans’ two scrambling third-down conversions and a third-down 13-yard scoring strike to running back Austin Vaughn.
A 39-yard burst by Raymond Calais set up Nunez’ third scoring pass, this one a six-yarder to Ragas, but Marcus Green’s 43-yard kickoff return gave the Warhawks a short field and Kayin White’s five-yard run kept ULM within a score at 21-14 midway through the second quarter.
The ULM defense finally stopped the Cajuns on a third-down and forced Pfau’s field goal, and one possession later Straughter stepped in front of Malone and then evaded Nunez at the UL-Lafayette 25 for the Warhawks’ first interception TD return of the season.
It was the Cajuns defense, though, that forced two turnovers in a scoreless third quarter with Jacquet’s pick and Justin Middleton’s fumble recovery that set up a 79-yard march ended by Levi Lewis’ 40-yard screen pass to Mitchell that pushed it to 31-21.
“You can’t turn the ball over twice in the red zone like we did,” Viator said. “We had an opportunity to tie it or go up and put a little more pressure on them, but we were never able to get the lead and force them out of what they were doing.”
Evans found Marcus Green for a 30-yard touchdown with 4:47 left to make it a three-point game before he led the final drive that came up short. Evans finished with 15-of-21 completions for 201 yards and the two scores, after accounting for six touchdowns in last year’s 56-50 ULM win.
“We did a good job with our rush lanes and put a little more speed on the field,” Napier said of keeping Evans in check. “He’s a weapon, but I think our front did a really good job. We affected him, we covered and we won the matchups and ultimately that’s what it came down to.”