Football - Napier: No room for 'what if' after turnover-filled performance + game photo gallery
Luke Johnson, The Advertiser, Sept. 1, 2019
Click here for the game photo gallery of the Louisiana vs. Mississippi State Football season opener on Aug. 31, 2019.
NEW ORLEANS — College football is a results-driven business, so UL coach Billy Napier was not going to concern himself with the what-ifs in the immediate aftermath of his squad’s 38-28 loss to Mississippi State in the Superdome.
The stark reality of it is the Ragin’ Cajuns were hanging right in there with Southeastern Conference foe Mississippi State, punch-for-punch for four full quarters Saturday.
Trey Ragas’ 17-yard touchdown run with 2:45 to go made it a one-score game, and UL had a legitimate chance to get a stop, get the ball back and make something crazy happen.
And all of that happened despite the fact that the Cajuns turned the ball over four times in the first three quarters.
Could Napier imagine a different outcome had the Cajuns been a bit more careful with the ball? Well, the coach is not going to entertain fairy tales.
“We’re not gonna live in that (what-if) world,” Napier said. “We’re gonna evaluate it for what it is, and it’s all gonna be about what we do going forward, and that’s the key here.”
The official turnover tally in the season opener was five, counting an interception on Levi Lewis’ desperation heave into the endzone on the game’s final play. But it was the four early in the game that hurt the most.
Not because Mississippi State really made the Cajuns pay for the sloppy play — somewhat remarkably, the Bulldogs scored just seven points off the Cajuns’ five turnovers — but because a couple of those plays dissipated a big swell of momentum that was working in UL’s favor.
As these things sometimes go, the very first play of the game was a sign of things to come.
Junior quarterback Levi Lewis, making his fourth career start but his first as The Guy, did not anticipate MSU safety Cameron Dantzler on a throw toward the sideline and was intercepted. This was immediately after the Bulldogs had raced downfield for a quick touchdown on their opening possession.
“The big part about it is not beating yourself,” Lewis said. “That’s what it all boils down to. You beat yourself, you’re giving them the game.”
Defensive back Michael Jacquet had Lewis’ back, making the interception a moot point when he wheeled around the edge on a corner blitz and recorded a strip sack on the Bulldogs’ ensuing possession. The Cajuns appeared poised to capitalize on that, driving into MSU territory.
When facing a fourth-and-1 outside of field goal range, Napier opted for a gadget play. He called a double pass, which required Lewis to make a backward throw to receiver Jamarcus Bradley (a high school quarterback), with the idea that Bradley would suck in the defense and make an easy throw over the top. The problem was Bradley was not able to reel in the pass from Lewis, dropping it and allowing MSU to recover near midfield.
“That’s what we were trying to do, didn’t execute it very well,” Napier said. “The players wanted to run it, … fourth-and-1 was a go, and we went for it.”
UL had a chance to seize control after Mississippi State missed a chip shot field goal early in the second quarter. It had already tied the game and was driving near midfield with a chance to take the lead.
But again, Lewis attempted a backward pass, again it fell to the turf, and again it was scooped up by the Bulldogs. This time, MSU capitalized with a five-play, 42-yard touchdown drive that put it back in front by a score.
The last meaningful turnover was perhaps the most crushing to the Cajuns' hopes. The Bulldogs had just put together an impressive touchdown drive to stretch the lead to 14, and the Cajuns were trying to put together a response.
They cut through the Mississippi State defense with ease as they marched down field, not even needing to convert a third down as they drove from their own 13 to the MSU 12. But the drive ended there when Trey Ragas coughed up the ball and the Bulldogs fell on it, a red zone turnover that likely cost the Cajuns at least three points.
“You can’t help but say the old adage: The first way you win is you don’t beat yourself,” Napier said.
So that was the type of game it was. Hard fought and down to the wire despite the four plays UL really wishes it could have back.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, Napier tried to put it into the right words. He first brought up the “tremendous effort,” and the “great level of belief.” He admired his team’s toughness, a trait he saw mentally and physically.
And, in the same breath, he saw the main culprit behind the L that is written in ink on the schedule. No amount of wishing or what-iffing will change that outcome.
“I take total responsibility for that,” Napier said. “Myself and our staff, we’re going to get that right. That’s not the type of football team that we want to be.”