Football: Up in smoke - UL gets to Sun Belt title game with win at ULM + video & photo gallery
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Nov. 26, 2018
MONROE — As Craig Ford's field goal attempt from 36 yards out sailed wide right, someone unwrapped the first cigar.
Many more were to follow.
UL had held on to beat UL Monroe 31-28 in one that went to the wire on Saturday at Malone Stadium here, giving the 7-5 Ragin' Cajuns the Sun Belt Conference's West Division title at 5-3 in league play and sending them to Boone, North Carolina, this coming Saturday for a meeting with Appalachian State in the first-ever Sun Belt championship.
The victory almost assuredly will send UL to a bowl game as well, as the Cajuns went into Saturday already bowl-eligible but needing to get to seven wins to avoid the likelihood of getting left out.
"Being bowl-eligible but having a little bit of uncertainty did not sit well with me," first-year UL coach Billy Napier said. "But all we could do was control winning today, and preparing the right way, and I think we did that."
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That they did.
So what was one of the first things the Cajuns did to celebrate it all?
"We wanted to create some significance to this rivalry for our players and staff," Napier said.
"The idea (of victory cigars) came up, and it being an in-state rival, and really important to our players, our fans, our alumni, it's something we're gonna try to do each year for this game; if we win we're gonna, like I told the players, 'Smoke if you got 'em' — and we got 'em tonight."
They did, but only by a nub.
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Andre Nunez threw first-half touchdown passes of 40 yards to Ryheem Malone, 20 yards to Ja'Marcus Bradley and 6 yards to Trey Ragas and Kyle Pfau hit at 37-yard field goal as UL took a 24-14 lead with just more than four minutes to go in the first half.
Ragas also finished with 115 rushing yards, pushing him past 1,000 on the season and making him one of just five Cajuns to reach the plateau along with Elijah McGuire, Tyrell Fenroy, Michael Desormeaux and Brian Mitchell.
He now has six 100-yard rushing games on the season, tying Fenroy's school record.
"All I can say is, 'Shoutout to my o-line,'" Ragas said.
Even with all of its early success, however, UL's day was far from done, as ULM made it 24-21 behind Corey Slaughter's 66-yard pick-six with 2:25 to go before the break.
Nunez's pass was intended for Malone, who slipped trying to come back for the ball.
The interception, which came with Nunez 9-of-9 at the time, changed the game's complexion.
ULM kept it a 3-point game throughout a scoreless third quarter, which for UKL featured a Michael Jacquet interception in the end zone followed by a Justin Middleton strip and fumble recovery.
But when the Cajuns extended their lead back to 10 with 40-yard Levi Lewis screen pass to Elijah Mitchell, the Warhawks answered about seven minutes later with a 30-yard Caleb Evans touchdown throw to Marcus Green that helped make it 31-28.
UL got the ball back with 4:47 to go, but could not run out the clock.
ULM's two-minute drive ended with Evans overthrowing Green in the end zone, setting up the chance by Ford to force overtime that went awry for the Warhawks.
What were Cajuns on the sideline thinking?
"I just knew the defense would hold it down," Ragas said. "I knew."
"I've got faith in my defense, you know?" Nunez added. "Before they went out, they (told) me they have my back, so I believe in them 100 percent."
There was a point, though, when it looked like the cigars might not make it out of the box.
ULM got to the red zone and threatened a late-game win, making it all the way to the 14.
But an illegal formation penalty sent them back to the 19 for the incomplete throw to Green, leaving the Warhawks just four seconds and making them trot Ford out on third down.
"Give our defense some credit, man," Napier said with reference a unit much-maligned throughout the season. "We covered those guys. We did a great job containing the quarterback."
Evans ran for five touchdowns and 129 yards and threw for 343 yards and one TD when ULM beat UL 56-50 in overtime last year, but on Saturday he was limited 204 passing yards, two TD throws and just 24 yards rushing.
No lighting up the Cajuns for Evans this year.
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"He's a great player," Jacquet said. "But ... shoutout to the coaches, they came in with a great game plan to control 6."
And with the Cajuns indeed managing to keep Evans check this time, their postgame party was on.
For most, that is, as many from UL partook in the smokin' good times.
Not Jacquet, though.
"I ain't really no cigar guy," he said. "It was giving me a headache."
He simply took a knee before leaving the field.
"So much was going through my mind," Jacquet said. "We were counted out early in the season. We (were) picked not even to be here at this point. So, a whole bunch of emotions just ran down me at one time, to know how far we have came."
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