How Billy Napier and the No. 24 Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns tend to flirt with danger, and win

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

UL lives dangerously.

But the No. 24 Ragin’ Cajuns seem to like it, perhaps even thrive off it. Thursday at Cajun Field was no different.

UL (7-1, 6-0 Sun Belt) rallied to beat Georgia State, 21-17, for its fourth win this season by four points or fewer.

“The kids really kept their poise,” coach Billy Napier said.

“Certainly a lot of ups and downs, a lot of mistakes, a lot of ugly ball. Easily could have splintered.”

But the Cajuns held it together.

The reward: UL’s fourth straight SBC West Division title and fourth consecutive conference championship game berth.

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It happened despite looking like the Cajuns were bound to be upset.

It’s nothing new.

During a 10-1 2020 season, UL also won four times by four points or fewer – including a 34-31 overtime victory at Georgia State.

“Last year I think we were down seven times at halftime and came back every one of those times,” said Peter LeBlanc, who had a career-high nine catches for 118 yards and a touchdown Thursday.

“We seem to do the same thing this year and it’s nice … to play to our potential when we’re down.”

Ragin' Cajuns receiver Peter LeBlanc runs after making one of his nine catch in UL's win over Georgia State on Thursday night at Cajun FIeld.

Baffling Cajun tendencies

This was the first time this season UL has overcome a halftime deficit.

Trailing 10-0, UL got a 13-yard Levi Lewis pass to LeBlanc in the third quarter and two Montrell Johnson Jr. touchdown runs in the fourth, the last a 13-yarder with two minutes and 49 seconds left.

“Overall,” Napier said, “a lot of poise, a lot of morale, togetherness, chemistry.”

But why it must be so hard sometimes is a mystery.

Maybe it’s because of another slow start. Or maybe it’s because the Cajuns, coming off a 45-0 win over Texas State two outings after beating Appalachian State 41-13, thought they’d walked through another.

Napier doesn’t buy the notion his 2021 team tends to play down to opponents. But sometimes it appears that way.

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Consider: Georgia State (4-5, 3-2), sound as it is, opened 1-4. The Cajuns’ 28-27 win over Arkansas State last month came against a 1-7 club. During a 20-18 early-October win at South Alabama, they were shut out in the second half by a Jaguars team that lost the following week to 2-6 Texas State. And in late September they won 28-20 at 2-6 Georgia Southern, which subsequently fired Chad Lunsford and hired fired Southern Cal coach Clay Helton.

Whether playing down is the case or not, the Cajuns inarguably do not always make things easy.

Yet the notion of flirting with danger is one they quibble with too.

UL's A.J. Riley sacks Georgia State quarterback Darren Grainger during the Cajuns' 21-17 win Thursday night.

“I don’t know if I would say living on the edge,” said outside linebacker A.J. Riley, who had two sacks.

“Sometimes you just have those nights where offense can’t get it going and defense is playing good, or … offense is clicking and defense, we just can’t get a stop. It’s just all about finding that balance, adjusting. That’s the main thing with us. Halftime adjustments: That’s our No. 1 strength.”

UL resiliency

There was plenty to fix Thursday, when UL managed just 38 first-half rushing yards.

But alterations were made, and the Houdini act succeeded again.

“Offensively we kind of got into some better stuff in the second half,” said Napier, whose Cajuns visit Troy on Nov. 13.

That allowed UL to exhibit resiliency Riley attributes to experience.

“This is basically the same team from last year, minus (running backs) Elijah (Mitchell) and Trey (Ragas),” he said.

“We’re really old, and we’ve been together for a long time. We know each other. We know our strengths and weaknesses, and we’ve got that special bond you usually don’t have. We just stick together, and play for each other.”

No matter how scary things may get.