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Football: Why hosting Sun Belt title game gives Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns football leg up on real goal

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Nov. 14, 2021

TROY, Ala. – It is not necessarily the record, the national ranking or the bowl game it will go to that matters most to UL in 2021.

Rather, it is claiming the Sun Belt Conference championship that eluded the No. 25 Ragin’ Cajuns since the league’s title game inception in 2018.

UL (9-1, 7-0 Sun Belt) took a huge step toward doing just that Saturday, beating Troy 35-21 to clinch the right to host the championship game on Dec. 4 at Cajun Field.

“It is a big deal,” coach Billy Napier said.

UL 35, TROY 21:Cajuns football vs. Troy video highlights

UL has qualified for the last three title games.

But it lost the first two, both at Appalachian State, and was denied the chance to play in a third one when last year’s game at Coastal Carolina was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Chanticleers’ program.

“Just having gone there so many years, back-to-back, coming up short, and then not getting to play against Coastal last year, it was just devastating,” said inside linebacker Ferrod Gardner, who had a team-high 10 tackles and sealed the win with an interception when it was still a seven-point game with just more than five minutes to go.

“So this year we get an opportunity to go back. We secured it early. It’s at our place. We can’t ask for a better situation.”

Cajuns can’t wait to host

UL will face either App State, Coastal Carolina or Georgia State – depending on how the final two weeks of Sun Belt play shake out – in the championship game.

But first the Cajuns must finish the regular season with a non-conference game Saturday at Liberty followed by the finale Nov. 27 against UL Monroe at Cajun Field.

“It’s a good feeling, knowing that you can host it,” said quarterback Levi Lewis, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for one. “We wanted to do the for the past few years. It’s going to be a special moment down at Cajun Field.”

UL clinched the right to host after it won and No. 21 Coastal Carolina, playing without injured quarter Grayson McCall, lost 42-40 to Georgia State earlier Saturday.

Lewis’ play – including a 15-yard touchdown pass to Dontae Fleming, a 52-yard TD throw to Michael Jefferson Jr. later in the first quarter, a 13-yard scoring pass to Kyren Lacy early in the third quarter and a 27-yard touchdown run on fourth down that helped make it 28-13 midway through the third – was instrumental.

He finished 14-of-21 for 166 yards with no interceptions, and ran nine times for 44 yards.

“I thought No. 1 (Lewis) was just outstanding on a couple plays tonight,” Napier said. “To just step up and hit the deep ball (to Jefferson), the fourth-and-9 tuck and run – just really special plays.

“Good team win.”

UL gets another shot

Napier said he didn’t tell the team what it had accomplished until afterward.

“I think with five minutes left in the game I saw the score (of the Coastal-Georgia State game) and got confirmation on the sideline that that was true,” Napier said. “But we didn’t tell the players, obviously.”

Some found out anyway, though, Lewis among them.

It made UL’s ninth straight win that much more satisfying, especially knowing what it could lead to.

Lewis suggested winning the conference championship game has been UL’s goal since January, shortly after last season ended with a First Responder Bowl win over Texas-San Antonio in Dallas.

“We’ve been working toward that since we started this whole season,” he said.

“We always felt like that was what we wanted to do. We kind of let the fish off the hook a couple games, but this one, we’re gonna hold fast.”