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Football: Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana football honor late assistant D.J. Looney with 265 rushing yard

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Dec. 27, 2020

The Ragin’ Cajuns sensed Saturday was going to be special.

Once the First Responder Bowl was under way at SMU’s Gerald R. Ford Stadium in Dallas, running back Elijah Mitchell was certain of it.

The holes he had to run through were huge. Whether it was the final day as a Ragin’ Cajun for him and fellow running back Trey Ragas, it soon was apparent both would have a good game. Most importantly, Mitchell and the Cajuns soon knew they’d be able to honor late assistant coach D.J. Looney – again.

UL did just that, beating UTSA 31-24 to bring an emotional 2020 season almost full circle on what would have been Looney’s 32nd birthday.

More:Ragin’ Cajun coaches mourn loss of UL assistant Looney

“It was very important (to end the season with a win), man,” Mitchell said after the Cajuns closed with a seventh straight victory.

The Cajuns (10-1) did it behind Levi Lewis touchdown throws to Jalen Williams and Kyren Lacy, 127 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries by bowl MVP Mitchell, and 12 rushes for 98 yards and a tie-breaking touchdown by redshirt senior running back Trey Ragas midway through the fourth quarter.

“We’ve been through so much, man, with Coach Looney, from COVID, with just everything going on,” Mitchell said, “and we just put it in our minds that we just wanted this year to be great, no matter what the circumstances (were).”

Looney, an offensive line assistant coach, died of a heart attack during an Aug. 1 team workout shortly before the start of preseason camp.

The Cajuns dedicated their season-opening upset win at nationally ranked Iowa State to him, then did the same when it beat UAB in Looney’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

They closed the year with one final tribute to the gregarious former Mississippi State offensive lineman.

More:Cajuns will honor D.J. Looney with name on jersey in Birmingham

Related:UL assistant football coach Looney dies of heart attack

“Man, what an unbelievable friend,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said of Looney, also an ex-Mississippi State and Central Arkansas assistant coach.

“I think COVID was a little bit of an issue early for our team, but really the first significant event that was really a challenge for this team was Coach Looney passing.

“To finish (Saturday), on his birthday … there’s no question our players were aware of that, and it means something to them. I think that’s an indication of what type of person D.J. was, and how hard he worked to get to know each individual person, and his knack for saying the right thing at the right time.”

Mike linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill, who had a team-high 11 tackles, attested to that after the Cajuns’ third consecutive bowl appearance and second straight bowl win.

“Everybody woke up this morning, with kind of a feeling of hurt, like this is his day, and it’s crazy we’re playing a bowl game on his birthday,” said McCaskill, a juco transfer from Detroit.

“He was one of the guys, one of the reasons, I came here. He was the o-line coach, and he was recruiting me. When I got here, he took care of me. That was special. He was a special guy.”

Which is why the Cajuns wanted to make it special one more time for him.

Crazy:Chaos reigned behind the scenes before the Cajuns wound up in the First Responder Bowl

UL’s offensive line of center Shane Vallot, left tackle Carlos Rubio, left guard Ken Marks, right guard O’Cyrus Torrence and right tackle Max Mitchell saw to that, making it clear right away they would own the trenches and open one gaping hole after another for Mitchell and Ragas.

“First drive, that’s when we can tell how it’s gonna be inside,” said Mitchell, who still hasn’t said for sure if he’ll turn pro or take the extra season of eligibility being granted to all FBS because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And we had some pretty good runs up the middle,” Mitchell added, “so I knew it was going to be a good day.”

It was for the Cajuns, who accounted for 265 of their 411 total yards on the ground.

Perhaps the biggest of those yards came from Ragas, who punched it in standing up after Mitchell had taken to the ball to the 1 on a play that ended with his headless helmet – but not the ball – in the end zone.

The two plays – and a fourth-down conversion run by Mitchell earlier on the same drive – seemed to sum up how things went for UL’s offense all day, with the Cajuns seemingly able to run at will into the heart of UTSA’s defense.

“They played well,” Napier said of his offensive line.

“They took a lot of pride in trying to get the ball to the second level, and the backs were on point today. I mean, they played with unbelievable effort. … Certainly the difference in the game was our ability to rush the ball effectively.”

All in Looney’s honor.


UL assistant Looney remembered:‘He always cared about you,’ ex-Mississippi State teammate says