MIAMI — A game that featured the highest-scoring offense in the Sun Belt Conference against the stingiest defense went the way of the offense as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette defeated Florida International 36-31 on Saturday night.
The Cajuns (3-1, 1-0) were led by quarterback Blaine Gautier. The former Lutcher High School standout used both his arm and his legs to hurt the FIU defense, which entered the contest allowing only 14.3 points-per-game.
Gautier finished 14 for 26 passing for 221 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 86 yards to lead ULL to the conference victory.
Ladarius Green had three catches for 56 yards and a score. Darryl Surgent also was solid for the Cajuns both on offense and special teams finishing with 42 yards on two receptions with a touchdown and 172 return yards.
FIU (3-1, 1-1) jumped out quick in the game as Kedrick Rhodes scored on a 43-yard run less than two minutes into the game, and following an extra point by Jack Griffin, it was 7-0 Panthers. The Cajuns got on the board after a holding call against FIU in the end zone to make it 7-2.
ULL got three more points with 5:07 left in the first quarter on a 48-yard field goal by Brett Baer to make it 8-7. After going back and forth for three possessions, the Cajuns took over with 3:17 left in the half and faced a fourth-and-1 from the FIU 41.
The turning point of the game came next as the Cajuns lined up for the play and FIU stacked the box expecting a running play. Gautier faked a handoff and found a wide-open Green, who rumbled 41 yards for the score to make it 15-7 in favor of the Cajuns.
“I had confidence in the play call and knew that Ladarius would get open and convert the play,” Gautier said.
“We were able to capitalize tonight with great work by our special teams, defense and offense. It was a total team effort.”
The Panthers answered following a 69-yard kickoff return by Wayne Times. That set up the Panthers who cut the lead to 15-14 after Rhodes found the end zone for the second time, this time from 11 yards out.
The halftime lead by ULL marked the first time FIU had trailed at the half in eight games, since Oct. 30, against Florida Atlantic.
But the Cajuns didn’t waste much time when the second half opened, driving the down field in 1:36 and scoring on a 22-yard pass from Gautier to Surgent for a 22-14 lead.
FIU again answered following a 2-yard run by backup quarterback Jake Medlock, who entered the game midway through the second quarter. ULL again answered, scoring a 13-yard run by Alonzo Harris to make it 29-21.
The Panthers cut the lead to 29-24 after a Griffin field goal from 20 yards with 14:06 left in the game.
Following a 46-yard return by Surgent, Gautier hit Javone Lawson with a 46-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 36-24. The Panthers again cut into the lead after Rhodes scored for the third time in the game, this time on a 2-yard run to close out the scoring.
The Cajuns defense was paced by Lance Kelley, Devon Lewis-Buchanan, Jemarlou Moten and Le’Marc Gibson with seven tackles each.
“This was a total team effort tonight,” ULL coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We had been scoring a lot of points all season long from all aspects of the game, but tonight the offense really came alive and Gautier spearheaded the effort by controlling the ball and not having any turnovers.”
ULL returns home for the next three games as they host Florida Atlantic at 6 p.m. Saturday, followed by home games against Troy and North Texas before heading back out on the road.
“This win will help this young and immature team grow up a little bit,” Hudspeth said. “We now have to get the guys to come back down to earth and realize the next game is the most important.”