“I told our team, if we win the turnover battle, we’ll win the game. And we did.” MARK HUDSPETH, UL-Lafayette coach
Louisiana-Lafayette keeps getting a kick out of its New Orleans Bowl appearances — thanks to its kickers.
Hunter Stover converted a tie-breaking 27-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, and the Ragin’ Cajuns made that lead hold up for a 24-21 victory against Tulane on Saturday night when former Lou Groza Award winner Cairo Santos was wide left on a 48-yard field goal for Tulane with 9 seconds left.
Stover’s effort wasn’t as impressive as Brett Baer’s three field goals in a 43-34 win against East Carolina last year or Baer’s 50-yarder as time ran out for a 32-30 victory over San Diego State in 2011, but it was just as important as UL-Lafayette left the Mercedes-Benz Superdome victorious for the third consecutive year.
Stover hadn’t attempted a field goal all season, and the Ragin’ Cajuns had not made one in their past five games.
“He’s a clutch guy,” UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. “He thrives in that type of environment, and you saw what he did. He nailed it right down the middle. He didn’t even think twice.”
UL-Lafayette (9-4) also got a courageous performance from quarterback Terrance Broadway, who threw for 143 yards less than a month after suffering a broken throwing arm. Cleared to play on Monday this week (the Ragin’ Cajuns listed him as doubtful up to Saturday), he left with another injury right before the go-ahead kick but survived two interceptions to lead the Ragin’ Cajuns.
UL-Lafayette safety Sean Thomas had two interceptions, helping the Ragin’ Cajuns win despite being outgained 388-325.
Orleans Darkwa rushed for a New Orleans Bowl-record three touchdowns — which also set a Tulane mark for any bowl — on his way to game MVP honors. He had 83 yards on 16 carries.
Tulane (7-6), which failed to score more than 17 points in four of its last five regular-season games, spotted UL-Lafayette a 21-0 lead in the first half but almost overcame that deficit before losing for the fourth time in five games, too.
For the first 20 minutes, UL-Lafayette looked like an experienced team that had won the New Orleans Bowl the two previous years, and Tulane resembled a team that had not been to a bowl game or had a winning record in 11 years.
That was exactly the case, and the Ragin’ Cajuns took advantage as Tulane played with too much emotion, according to coach Curtis Johnson.
“It was uncharacteristic of us, then all of a sudden we settled down,” he said. “From the second quarter on, we played pretty well. Penalties and turnovers hurt us. … But the effort was great — a great comeback. We’ll get it next year.”
Elijah McGuire capped a six-play, 65-yard drive with a 27-yard touchdown run on UL-Lafayette’s first series. That came right after he broke three tackles to convert a pass behind the line into a 17-yard gain.
UL-Lafayette, the leading rushing team in the Sun Belt Conference, struck again later in the first quarter, chewing up a Tulane run defense that ranked 16th nationally. Alonzo Harris burst through a huge hole up the middle for a 15-yard score to make it 14-0.
By the end of the quarter, the Ragin’ Cajuns already had rushed for 86 yards. They gained only 82 more on the ground the rest of the way.
Tulane’s offense often could not get out of its own way, throwing three interceptions, fumbling twice (the Green Wave recovered both) and getting called for six false-start penalties.
The second one was the most costly. Nick Montana threw a pass to the sideline for tight end Sydie London, and cornerback Corey Trim jumped the route for an easy 82-yard touchdown return.
“I was surprised he threw it,” Trim said. “But Coach said, ‘Shade him; don’t mirror him. Don’t break on the ball until it’s thrown.’ ”
Devin Powell, who played one early series, replaced Montana for good after the pick-six. He made some big plays, finishing with 223 passing yards on only 10 completions, but he also threw a pivotal interception in the fourth quarter from his own end zone right to Thomas, setting up UL-Lafayette at the Tulane 13 after an unsportsmanlike penalty on the Green Wave.
Soon after, Stover hit the game-winner.
“I told our team, if we win the turnover battle, we’ll win the game,” Hudspeth said. “And we did.”
Tulane’s last chance ended in Santos’ miss after Powell hit Justyn Shackleford for 34 yards on third-and-10 from the Green Wave 5, sparking a drive to the UL-Lafayette 25. After a sack moved the ball back to the 31, Santos could not send the game to overtime.
With Tulane trailing 21-0 in the second quarter, Johnson gambled by keeping his offense on the field on fourth-and-2 from the Green Wave 48.
After calling a timeout, he dialed up a deep pass, and redshirt freshman Devon Breaux hauled in an underthrown pass from Powell for a 41-yard gain to the UL-Lafayette 11.
Just like that, the Green Wave came to life. Darkwa scored on a 1-yard run and a 7-yard run in the second quarter, then tied the score at 21 in the third quarter with a 22-yard touchdown after Broadway flipped an ill-advised pass under duress to defensive back Derrick Strozier, who returned it 20 yards to the Ragin’ Cajuns 17.