Lewis: Cajuns rule New Orleans again, but Green Wave is rising

Good times. What can beat a halftime salute to Elvis with the 610 Stompers?

Good crowd. An announced 54,728, largest in New Orleans Bowl history.

Good game. Well, at least it was close.

Louisiana-Lafayette and Tulane did not turn in a masterpiece Saturday night.

There were five turnovers, 158 penalty yards plus about 80 more in offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct calls that weren’t marked off, a pair of injured quarterbacks making potential game-changing mistakes, the game MVP coming from the losing team and three of 12 third-down efficiency by the Green Wave.

Three of 13 if you count former Groza Award winner Cairo Santos missing a 48-yard field goal attempt with 9 seconds left that would probably have meant overtime.

Given the lateness of the hour — it was 10 minutes till midnight when it ended — maybe that was for the best, even in this 24/7 town.

But despite the flaws, for Louisiana-Lafayette, a program striving for first-among-equals status with everybody but that big school 50 miles to the east and potential national recognition as what used to be called a BCS buster, a 24-21 victory was certainly a needed step in that forward direction.

There’s a guaranteed berth in a College Football Playoff access game (either the Fiesta, Cotton or Chick-fil-A bowl), and with 18 starters back and a favorable schedule (a Sept. 20 game at Boise State looms large), the Cajuns could find themselves in a New Year’s Eve game next season instead of coming back to New Orleans for a fourth straight time.

Certainly wherever they are, the fans will follow.

Tulane had to make its final drive Saturday fighting against the noise made by the out-of-towners who outnumbered by 3-1 the team that has been calling the Superdome home.

But don’t get too down on Tulane.

Given where the program has been for most of the past 11 years, a 7-6 finish with a three of the losses by four points or less is commendable.

Quarterback Nick Montana clearly wasn’t 100 percent and was pulled after a pick-six in the second quarter.

Backup Devin Powell made some big plays — the 49-yarder to Ryan Grant and the 42-yarder to Devon Breaux — along with bad ones, namely the interception out of his team’s end zone in his fourth quarter that set up what proved to be the winning field goal.

Those were UL-Lafayette’s only points of the second.

It was a testament to the Tulane defense that it held the fort after the Cajuns had jumped out to a 21-0 lead.

More than 40 years ago, a Tulane team that beat Colorado in the Liberty Bowl was referred to as “Little Green Men.”

Little guys in green like linebackers Nico Marley (5-foot-8, 180 pounds) and Derrick Strozier (5-8, 181) made their mark all season long.

For Tulane, a team that next year is moving into a new conference and a new-on campus stadium after 38 years in the Dome, the strides the program took this season were vital to a school where the days of being the No. 1 rival of that same school in Baton Rouge the Cajun fans would love to beat may never return. But they do have a chance to reach a level of respectability that has been rare since leaving the Southeastern Conference nearly a half-century ago.

“We’ll get it next time,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “I can’t wait to get to spring practice.”

But in the end, the night belongs to UL-Lafayette.

The Cajuns have won this bowl three times now.

That’s without ever making a bowl appearance as a Division I program before it.

It’s a habit that they’ve gotten used to and should expect to continue.