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Football – Upset denied: Cajuns’ comeback falls short

Joshua Parrott • jparrott@theadvertiser.com • September 14, 2008

UL tight end Erik Jones celebrates as the official in the background signals touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the Cajuns' game with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Jones' 11-yard touchdown reception brought the score to 20-17. The Cajuns tried an onside kick, but Illinois recovered.

UL tight end Erik Jones celebrates as the official in the background signals touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the Cajuns’ game with the Illinois Fighting Illini. Jones’ 11-yard touchdown reception brought the score to 20-17. The Cajuns tried an onside kick, but Illinois recovered. (Photos by Kelly J. Huff/The (Decatur) Herald & Rev)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Too many missed opportunities resulted in heartbreak for UL’s football team.

Anyone doubting that needed to look at senior quarterback Mike Desormeaux after Saturday’s 20-17 loss at 24th-ranked Illinois.

Desormeaux believed little in any moral victories, even after the Ragin’ Cajuns left the 58,632 fans at Memorial Stadium and the heavily favored Fighting Illini breathing heavily for most of the day.

"I’m so proud of the way we played," Desormeaux said. "But I’m still really disappointed because we had plenty of opportunities to win the game."

Trailing 17-3 going into the fourth quarter, the Cajuns (0-2) sandwiched two touchdowns around Matt Eller’s 27-yard field goal for Illinois in the final five minutes.

Following Desormeaux’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Erik Jones to make it 20-17 with 18 seconds left, UL lined up for an onside kick. Kicker Drew Edmiston tapped the ball to the right, but the Illini (2-1) recovered it.

Illinois took one knee to run out the clock as the Cajuns fell short of the program’s second win against a ranked opponent.

Now UL must deal with the frustration that comes with missed opportunities, which included two lost fumbles, two dropped passes, one missed field goal and nine penalties for 96 yards.

The Cajuns were out-gained 341-287, but their defense – ranked last nationally in rushing yards and total yards allowed – slowed an Illinois offense that averaged 44.5 points in its first two games of the season.

"We focused on a lot of fundamentals in practice last week," said UL linebacker Grant Fleming, who had an interception and tied for the team-high lead with eight tackles. "We practiced the small things, and it showed."

Illinois quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams, who entered the game sixth nationally in total yards per game (379.5) this season, got squeezed all day by the Cajuns. Williams finished with 182 yards, including a 13-of-25 passing effort for 147 yards and one touchdown.

It was Williams’ worst statistical performance of the season. After setting career-high passing marks for yards (451) and touchdowns (five) in a loss to Missouri in the season opener, the Chicago native ran for a personal-best 174 yards in a win over Eastern Illinois.

"We just didn’t have it today," Williams said. "We need to find that desire and emotion if we want to keep winning."

While the Cajuns bottled up Williams, they struggled moving the ball on the ground. The Cajuns, who ran for 263 yards in a 51-21 loss to Southern Miss two weeks ago, managed only 87 rushing yards against the 101st-ranked run defense.

UL’s Tyrell Fenroy became the program’s career rushing leader with a nine-yard run in the first quarter. But the senior finished with only 20 yards on 14 carries – including zero yards on three carries in the final three quarters.

Desormeaux completed 25-of-35 passes for 200 yards and one TD and ran for 42 yards – 102 fewer than he had against Southern Miss. The New Iberia native gained 34 of his yards on a scoring run that sparked UL’s late rally.

"I thought we would have run the ball a little better," UL coach Rickey Bustle said. "There were some good players out there. We just didn’t block them all the time."

That said, most of UL’s wounds were self-inflicted against an Illinois team coming off a Rose Bowl appearance.

Wide receiver Lance Kelley fumbled the ball after getting hurt on a low hit by Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis on the game’s opening drive. Illinois recovered the ball and got a 51-yard field goal by Matt Eller.

On UL’s next series, Illinois linebacker Brit Miller stuffed Desormeaux behind the line on a running play up the middle. Miller then ripped the ball away and raced 27 yards to the end zone.

Miller’s rip-and-run play gave the Illini a 10-0 cushion with seven minutes left in the opening quarter.

"We practice that every day in practice," Miller said. "It’s the most boring, mundane part of practice. But it paid off today."

UL answered with a clock-draining drive capped by Edmiston’s 24-yard field goal in the final seconds of the first period.

The Cajuns got the ball back again at the Illinois 33 after Fleming stepped in front of a pass intended for Illini wide receiver Arrelious Benn. But the drive stalled after Desormeaux was sacked by linebacker Martez Wilson on third-and-12.

After a UL punt, Williams helped Illinois take a 17-3 lead with a 10-yard scoring strike to Daniel Dufrene on third down. Bustle challenged the play, but the officials said Dufrene – who ran for a game-high 126 yards – got into the end zone before being pushed out of bounds by Cajun cornerback Orkeys Auriene.

Jason Chery’s 58-yard return on the ensuing kickoff gave UL the ball at the Illinois 25. Two dropped passes, coupled with a holding penalty that erased a first-down run to Desormeaux, zapped the momentum for the Cajuns. UL came up empty when Edmiston pushed a 47-yard field goal attempt wide right.

Desormeaux’s 34-yard TD run, a play that was initially ruled out of bounds at the 2 but was overturned after an official’s review, with 5:30 left trimmed UL’s deficit to 17-10. Illinois pushed its lead up to 10 with Eller’s 27-yard field goal before Jones made a finger-tip catch and ran into the end zone in the closing seconds to pull the Cajuns closer at 20-17.

The rally ended when Illinois recovered UL’s onside kick. But the Cajuns remain positive after their inspired effort.

"I’m really proud of our football team," Bustle said. "We came into a hostile environment. But our kids responded and gave our team a chance to win."