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Football: Bowl loss mirrored UL’s 2016 season

Kevin Foote, The Advertiser, Dec. 18, 2016

It was almost uncanny.

In so many ways, the 2016 New Orleans Bowl game followed the same script as the 2016 season for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns.

It began with the feeling of total hopelessness.

Most figured Boise State would come to Cajun Field and win in the season opener.

The Broncos didn’t just win. Their passing attack riddled the Cajuns’ defense in embarrassing fashion, so much so that UL head coach Mark Hudspeth had to make the brutal decision to replace his old mentor and defensive coordinator Melvin Smith.

That feeling of total loss, though, was quickly replaced with some optimism, just like Saturday after USM’s passing game delivered two knockdown punches.

Just like with the wins over McNeese State and then the really impressive one over South Alabama that renewed hope, the Ragin’ Cajuns found a way to battle back by erasing the early 14-0 deficit with two touchdowns to force a 14-14 tie at the half.

“We got down 14-0, but that’s another demonstration of the character of this football game,” Hudspeth said.

And as bad as the game started, the Cajuns were actually in great position to take the lead late in the second quarter. With Southern Mississippi out of timeouts, the Eagles getting the ball first in the second half and the Cajun defense with its hands full against an explosive USM passing game, game management logic seemed to beg for running down the clock.

Instead, the Cajuns threw a pass into the end zone with 1:55 left on first-and-10 from the USM 22. It was intercepted to end the threat.

Obviously, going on a knee three times and attempting a field goal would have worked out better for the Cajuns. A 17-14 halftime lead wouldn’t have been hard to swallow.

Hudspeth said after the game that the staff’s thinking was to score.

“If it was with one minute left, that was fine,” he said. “We weren’t really trying to run out the clock.”

Nevertheless, the Cajuns kept fighting.

During the season came the two overtime losses and the injuries. Elijah McGuire got hurt at Tulane and never really recovered. Anthony Jennings was slowed with an ankle injury that limited the offense for multiple games.

On Saturday, the attrition got to the Cajuns. USM’s first drive in the second half was brutal.

Like the video incident that caused such a stir, three plays into the second half, UL safety Tracy Walker was flagged for targeting. The replay didn’t seem to support the call on the field at first glance, but the officials upheld it to eject Walker from the game.

Then shortly after that, Denarius Howard, Walker’s replacement, left injured. Cornerback Savion Brown also suffered an injury on that drive. UL suddenly appeared to be running  out of bodies on defense.

And stamina as well.

After limiting USM’s Ito Smith and the Eagles to 21 yards rushing in the first half, Smith began to break loose in the second half.

“It’s hard to run the ball in the first half,” Smith said. “But in the second half, the offensive line tuned it up and started clicking on all cylinders.”

At that point, it began to look like the Eagles would run away and hide, much like after the Idaho homecoming loss.

But the Cajuns still weren’t done.

Travis Crawford’s 53-yard interception return sparked a new comeback hope, leading to a Jennings TD run to narrow it to 28-21 with five minutes left.

And just like when the defense shined in the 30-3 road win at ULM to send the Cajuns bowling, it stopped USM on fourth down to keep the Cajuns’ hopes of a winning season alive.

But just as the season ultimately finished, the last-ditch effort fell short.

Just like the season as a hole, Saturday’s games revealed UL’s weaknesses with pass protection, pass defense and a few questionable decisions. Through it all, the team kept battling to the end, where it fell just short.

“It hurts,” linebacker Otha Peters said. “At least we had one more game to play. To finish with my teammates and our fans and family. I feel great.”