Cajuns answer adversity on road against Georgia Southern

Donald Heath
Special to the Advertiser

STATESBORO, Ga. — Two muffed punts, a horse-collar tackle penalty to keep a scoring drive alive, a missed extra-point kick — the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns were far from perfect during a 37-24 victory over Georgia Southern on Saturday night.

But head coach Billy Napier said he liked the “critical response” he saw from his team in its Sun Belt Conference opener.

The road win extended the Cajuns record to 4-1 overall, the best start for UL since 2012.

“That was the theme of the night — critical response,” Napier said. “We’d make a mistake and then we’d respond. It was very much a team win.

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“It’s scary that we still can improve. (The game) could have been a lot more under control and a more dominant win.”

Few teams have handled adversity at Paulson Stadium as well as the Cajuns did Saturday night.

GS (1-3, 0-1) has a 194-41 record at home since the stadium was built in 1984 and many here attribute the winning to the ghosts of Paulson Stadium.

UL didn't blink.

“(Winning on the road) is the ultimate mental toughness challenge,” Napier said. “You have to go in with a different mindset. Create your own energy. The challenge is your togetherness. It’s what we have right now.”

Two fumbled punts in the first half — one at the UL 7 — led to 10 Eagle points. But each was answered during ensuing possessions. Trey Ragas scored on a touchdown run after the first fumble, and  Stevie Artigue booted a field goal after the second fumble.

The horse-collar tackle on a third-and-10 play gave Georgia Southern a first down on its opening possession, but UL’s defense stiffened and held the Eagles to a field goal.

And the missed extra point?  That didn’t occur until after the Cajuns sealed the win with another Ragas TD run with 2:34 left.

“What we’ve talked about all along is just get consumed with improvement and how good we can be if we operate on all cylinders,” Napier said.

UL had enough engine power to pull away from Georgia Southern, a 10-win team in 2018, despite the mistakes. Quarterback Levi Lewis led an offense that averaged 7.3 yards a play, blending 275 yards on the ground with 165 yards through the air.

The Cajuns produced four touchdown drives of 75 yards.

“I thought we mixed it up,” Napier said. “We kept (GS) off-balanced. Throughout the night, it was a little bit of a chess match. I feel like we made (the right play calls) at the right time.

“Tonight (Lewis) was really clean. It was his best game and it was his best game when we needed it.”

The defense cleaned up as well, limiting the Eagles’ option offense to just 3.7 yards a play. GS led the conference in rushing offense last season.

The Cajuns were allowing an average of 413 offensive yards a game to its three FBS opponents this season entering the game. The Eagles managed just 252 yards.

It all added up to a key road win before UL is back in action at home Oct. 9 against the Sun Belt’s East Division preseason favorite Appalachian State in a game that will be televised by ESPN2.

“It really is exciting but we can’t dwell on the success we’re having right now,” UL senior linebacker Jacques Boudreaux said. “We have to put that aside and keep building on top of success. It feels great. This team has come a long way but we’re not done yet. We still have a whole lot to show.”