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Football: Cajuns lost, but it was encouraging effort + game photo gallery

Kevin  Foote, The Advertiser, Dec. 2, 2018

Click here for game photo gallery.

There was a theory out there that UL’s competitive 27-17 loss at Appalachian State in October wasn’t a clear indication of how close the Ragin’ Cajuns were to the Sun Belt’s elite program.

Sure, it was by far the closest the Cajuns had come to actually beating the Mountaineers in five tries, but Appalachian State had just lost their leading rusher for the season and somehow weren't operating at maximum precision just yet.

More: App State Miracle on the Mountain was Napier nightmare

UL coach Billy Napier and his staff weren’t buying it. They walked off the field that day thinking they were much closer to the top of the conference than anyone imagined.

Saturday’s 30-19 setback to that same Appalachian State team verified that claim.

Despite the deficit actually being larger this time, the game just had a feel of being more competitive.

Even though it was still a double-digit loss, the Mountaineers were much more concerned about losing as the game entered the fourth quarter.

Truly, just a break here or there and the Cajuns easily could have been in position to claim the Sun Belt crown in the game’s closing minutes.

More: Postseason play pays for Ragin' Cajuns coach Napier

If Napier’s program was a hop, skip and a jump away two months ago, the Cajuns are now only that final leap away from rejoining the Sun Belt’s elite again.

There are so many takeaways from Saturday’s mostly frustrating but somewhat encouraging setback that left UL heading to Orlando, Florida for the Cure Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 15.

For starters, it’s hard to imagine the Cajuns’ defense playing much better over the first three quarters.

It wasn’t that long ago that defensive coordinator Ron Roberts’ unit was the team’s biggest question mark — by far.

For three quarters Saturday, it was the strength of the club.

More: Ragin' Cajun defense fins its groove late with turnovers

Imagine if the kicking game wouldn’t have yielded a 97-yard kickoff return right off the bat. The Cajuns might have really grabbed some early momentum.

In many ways, that’s really the second point. The Cajuns didn’t play perfectly — not even close to that level.

There were plenty of mistakes. The defense gets an incredible fourth-down stop on fourth-and-one from the App. State 33, only for the offense gets three consecutive  pre-snap penalties.

That's the kind of sequence that really embarrasses a coaching staff in other situations.

But this team didn’t wilt. The Cajuns picked up the 25 yards with relative ease, instead of letting the frustrating start to the series overwhelm them.

In addition to the long kickoff return allowed and those uncalled-for flags, the offense threw two interceptions and squandered some better scoring opportunities.

Still, the team kept plugging away.

Too many times over the years, championship games are like a ticking time bomb. The minute a few things go wrong for one side, it snowballs in a hurry.

A matchup that might have been a seven-point game in the regular season can quickly transform itself into a blowout.

Ask the majority of the first 30 or so Super Bowl losers.

Napier’s Cajuns lost. For some, it’s just that simple.

There’s going to be a time in his tenure where falling to the likes of Appalachian State by 11 points in the Sun Belt championship game just won’t cut it.

Perhaps that time will be as soon as next season. We’ll see.

It wasn’t so much that Saturday's loss was good enough, it was that it wasn't discouraging. It wasn't a team from the sub-par division with three losses that didn't really belong.

The Cajuns didn’t always play well, but they didn’t play scared.

They didn’t always play smart, but they bounced back from their shortcomings.

It was obvious they went up to Boone, North Carolina, convinced they could win the game, and they played like it.

UL won the first-down battle 16-13, won the total yards war 301-300, won the third-down conversion battle 6-for-15 to 3-for-12 and won the time-of-possession battle 31:30-28:30.

All of that against a pretty polished outfit in these Mountaineers, who were playing on their home field. What Appalachian State lacked in play-for-play execution, it made up for in the kicking game and with turnovers.

Sometimes you just have to give the opponent credit for answering the challenge.

Certainly, to beat a program as solid as Appalachian State on the road in the future, drives ending in four field goals need to include at least two more touchdowns.

But that’s all pretty good stuff.

For now.