Cajuns rely on Mitchell, high-powered ground game in win

Sam Blackburn
The Daily Advertiser
UL's Brian Smith Jr. hauls in a reverse pass from Jalen Williams along the sideline against Ohio during the second quarter on Saturday at Peden Stadium. The catch set up a field goal.

ATHENS, Ohio — Like most of his teammates, Erath native Elijah Mitchell had never been to Ohio.

He took one look at the rolling hills surrounding Ohio’s Peden Stadium and immediately had visions of deer hunting, one of his favorite pastimes. When told it was some of the most fertile venison grounds in the world, his eyes lit up like Las Vegas Boulevard.

Of course, that wasn’t a strange occurrence. It happened plenty on Saturday, as Mitchell’s legs played a vital role in leading his UL squad to 285 yards rushing in a 45-25 non-conference win against the Bobcats.

Mitchell ran 17 times for a team-high 143 yards and Trey Ragas added 129 on 15 totes, as the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offense leaned on its high-powered ground game for another win. It was their first true road game of the season and its first win against Ohio in school history after two previous losses.

“This is really something big for us, because they were a pretty good team on film,” Mitchell said. “That’s something we can take with us next week, because Georgia Southern, they’re a good team too. We need to come in with the same mentality.”

More:Cajuns win big on the road

One week after shattering multiple school records in a win against Texas Southern, the dual-threat running attack was back at it against a Bobcat defense that offered much more resistance. When Ohio pulled within 31-25 with 7:54 left, and the Cajun offense facing a third-and-2, Ragas outran the Bobcats to the edge for a 32-yard gain that moved the chains.

One play later, Mitchell busted through the middle for 15, eventually leading to his third touchdown.

“It was really good,” Mitchell said. “The O-line, they really gave a good push, and on the outside they were all blocking and it just opened up.”

After a first half mostly dominated by defense and punting — the teams had eight between them — Mitchell and Ragas combined for 160 second-half yards. It provided effective balance for crafty lefty Levi Lewis, who passed for 204 yards, including a pair of highlight-reel catches from receiver Ja’Mar Bradley.

Mitchell said he and Ragas feed off each other.

“It’s competition, but it’s not bad competition,” Mitchell said. “It’s like energy. If Trey breaks one, it’s like, ‘I want to break one. It’s my turn.’ It’s awesome, man.”

More:UL running backs contribute variety of talents to Cajuns backfield

The Cajuns turned a 10-6 halftime lead to 31-12 with 13:45 left in the game putting up 322 yards in three quarters, complimentary football that suited coach Billy Napier.

Napier said the Bobcats’ interior play on defense forced them to adjust schemes at halftime.

“We ran into some disadvantaged looks, in my opinion, and they had a good plan,” Napier said. “We went to a little more inside zone in the second half and that proved to be a lot more effective.”

The defense held the Bobcats to only 5-of-15 on third-down conversions, and star quarterback Nathan Rourke was just 12-of-27 passing through three quarters. They finished plus-3 in turnover margin after second-half interceptions from Kam Greenhouse and Asjlin Washington, with the former thwarting an Ohio drive that reached the Cajuns’ 27-yard line.

The Bobcats, playing with a depleted offensive line and running back corps, struggled to find consistency on the ground. Napier praised the offense and defense equally afterward.

“Give (defensive coordinator Ron) Roberts and those guys credit; they kept us in the game when our offense was sputtering,” Napier said. “There’s no question: We don’t win this game if it gets out of control in the first half.”

He was not as pleased about 16 penalties.

“You’d like it to be a little cleaner, but the fight our kids showed, and the halftime adjustments we made as a staff, that’s a well-coached team (at OU),” Napier said. “I’ve got tons of respect for how those kids compete and how tough they are, how fundamentally sound they are and what Coach (Frank) Solich has built here.”

Napier said there was no panic when the lead shrunk to one possession. They simply went back to the well.

“There were lots of reasons there where maybe we could have short-circuited,” Napier said. “We lost our poise throughout the day, but we hung in there, and that’s one of the things we talk to our kids about. We knew they’d be a well-prepared team, and they had some good players, and explosive players. They were going to have success at times. But responding to adverse situations was going to be very important and we played through that. We kept a very good competitive spirit. … I think we have a lot of fight in us.”

More UL football: