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Football: Backup saved the day for Cajuns

Some familiar names came to the forefront Saturday night, and because of that UL’s football team is on its first winning streak in almost a full year.

Linebacker Antwyne Zanders had his second double-digit tackle game in three weeks, posting 11 stops against Florida International. True freshman linebacker Grant Fleming had nine, including a key third-down tackle to halt an FIU drive.

And Lamar Morgan – who finished with 10 tackles and two sacks – had two of the game’s biggest plays in the final three minutes, recording a fourth-down sack and then ending the game with a fumble recovery with 20 seconds left.

That threesome not only combined for 30 tackles, but also led a defense that allowed FIU only one score on its last 10 possessions after the Panthers had scored three touchdowns the first four times they touched the ball.

But they weren’t the biggest key in Saturday’s 38-28 victory at the venerable Orange Bowl. The Cajuns would not have won, and would have become the answer to this season’s trivia question, had their backup quarterback not been ready and able when called.

Senior Connor Morel entered Saturday’s game early in the second quarter with UL trailing 21-14 and with starter Michael Desormeaux on his way to the locker room, after aggravating an already-bruised clavicle.

UL didn’t do much on Morel’s first meaningful series of his two-year Cajun career, punting after one first down. But the Cajuns scored touchdowns on three of their next four possessions, with Morel leading drives of 69, 82 and 95 yards for scores that gave UL the lead for good.

"It’s unfortunate what happened to Mike," Morel said, "but you can’t stop playing because the quarterback gets hurt. You’ve got to still go out there and do what you’re supposed to do."

What Morel did was hit 12-of-15 passes for 125 yards and a key touchdown toss to Deon Wallace, and lead an offense that didn’t turn the ball over after he entered the game. UL’s only offensive turnover came when Desormeaux was hit and reinjured when attempting to throw the ball away on a scramble on the first play of the second quarter. The play was ruled a fumble and set up FIU for a go-ahead touchdown and a 21-14 lead.

After that, UL’s defense got over the shock of giving up three early scores to statistically the nation’s worst offense. FIU’s next four possessions netted 13 yards, and the defense also provided a key turning point in holding the Panthers on four downs at the Cajun 5 after a 77-yard march midway through the third quarter.

From that point, the Cajuns used their hurry-up spread and marched 95 yards – all but nine of those yards on the ground – to a 1-yard Tyrell Fenroy touchdown that became a game-clinching score.

The Cajuns would have pitched a shutout over the final 44 minutes of the game had Phillip Nevels not been hit by a bouncing punt which FIU recovered at the UL 24 and scored seven plays later to make it 35-28 early in the fourth period. That kept alive hopes of snapping the nation’s longest losing streak, one that now numbers 22.

"That defense stepped up," said Cajun coach Rickey Bustle. "They got stops when we absolutely had to have them, and at the end we were able to get a sack and a strip.

"They (FIU) have scored first on a lot of people. They did against Monroe, they did against Troy and they did on us, and it was important for us to answer with the early scores we got."

Desormeaux had led the Cajuns to touchdowns on both of his series in the game before being injured, hitting all four of his passes and getting 36 yards rushing, including a 6-yard touchdown that put UL in front 14-7. But that wouldn’t have been enough had Morel not stepped in.

"Mike helps me every day in practice," Morel said. "So do the guys in the offensive line. They came up strong for us, and I knew I had them behind me."