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Football - First Responder Bowl: Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns 31, UTSA 24 + photo gallery

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Dec. 26, 2020

Click here for game photo gallery.

Trey Ragas used a 1-yard touchdown with seven minutes and 16 seconds remaining to snap a tie as No. 17 UL beat UTSA 31-24 on Saturday in the First Responder Bowl at SMU's Gerald R. Ford Stadium in Dallas.

The Ragin' Cajuns used a heavy dose of pass pressure and forced the Roadrunners to turn the ball over on downs after an incomplete pass with 4:37 to go, and UL ran out the clock from there. 

Levi Lewis threw for two touchdowns and Elijah Mitchell ran for another in the first half, but UTSA scored 17 straight points off a third-quarter turnover to tie the game.

Up 10 points at halftime, UL extended its lead to 24-7 right away when Ferrod Gardner recovered a muffed shotgun snap at the 3 and Elijah Mitchell punched it in from there one play later. But UL returned the favor with a rare Ragas fumble, and UTSA quickly took advantage with a 29-yard TD pass from Frank Harris to Zakhaei Franklin.

Harris followed with a 10-yard TD throw to Joshua Cephus later in the third quarter, and a 20-yard Hunter Duplessis tied it at 24-24 early in the fourth.

The Cajuns established themselves right away.

UL went for it on fourth down early on and converted with a 15-pass from Lewis to Kyren Lacy. One play later, Lewis had a 15-yard touchdown throw to Jalen Williams.

Kenneth Almendares’ 31-yard field goal later made it 10-0.

The Roadrunners cut into UL’s lead with an 11-yard touchdown run by quarterback Frank Harris, but the Cajuns answered with a 10-yard TD throw from Lewis to Lacy to go into the break up 17-7.

Here’s what we learned …

When push comes to shove, Cajuns can score

When push came to shove Saturday, UL went with its running backs.

Ragas' tie-breaking touchdown run came on brute strength one play after Mitchell took it to the 1, his helmet flying off but his hip down before crossing into the end zone.

Mitchell converted a fourth-and-1 inside the 15 earlier on the 12-play, 72-yard drive, proving simple, smart play calls often are the wise way to go for a team with two potential future NFL running backs. Especially when either could run up the middle behind an offensive line that controlled the trenches like UL's did against the Roadrunners. 

Turnovers played a huge part

UL went into the game 9-0 when forcing two or more turnovers this season.

Little did the Cajuns know how big of a role turnovers would play, though, on a day they again came up with more than one.

UL took advantage when Gardner made his fumble recover shortly after halftime and it looked the Cajuns were going to run away with it. But UTSA came to life after Ragas fumbled, and the two TD throws by Harris made it a 3-point game.

Butler made a point with pick

UL was mad when its Sun Belt Conference championship game at Coastal Carolina was canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the Chanticleers program – after the Cajuns had flown from Lafayette to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

The Cajuns were angry, too, when All-Sun Belt selections came out a few days later and only two from UL were on the first team – Mitchell and kicker returner Chris Smith. Several others, the Cajuns felt, should have been ranked higher were not.

Asked if he thought his kids were disrespected, coach Billy Napier said in a pre-bowl news conference Wednesday, “That’s a good question. I don’t know that I feel great about it. ... I think we’ve got more that deserve recognition.”

Among the many snubs, the Cajuns felt, were that Percy Butler earned only honorable mention and, despite having 13 passes defended including nine breakups and four interceptions through 10 regular-season games, fellow safety Bralen Trahan received no mention whatsoever.

Butler brought attention to the slight with a first-quarter pick Saturday – his second interception of the season.

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

The Cajuns were a tad shorthanded

UL was without one of its three standout freshman receivers, Dontae Fleming, who according to KPEL 1420 AM was wearing “a walking boot on his left foot.”

The Cajuns also were without backup offensive lineman Zach Roberston, an early season starter at left tackle. No reason was given for the absence of Robertson, who wasn’t on the injury list when UL’s injury list was released Wednesday but who did battle a foot injury much of the season.

UL also saw cornerback A.J. Washington have to be helped off early in the first half.

UTSA, meanwhile, was without first-year head coach Jeff Traylor, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. – a former assistant at Arkansas, San Jose State and Tulsa – coached instead.

The Roadrunners also had at least 10 inactive players according to an ABC TV report, including linebacker Jamal Ligon, backup running back Brenden Brady and usual deep snapper Caleb Cantrell.

Sixth-year senior:Headed to First Responder Bowl, Joe Dillon driven to do even more for the Cajuns

Rules:No. 17 Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns vs. UTSA football officials

UL recruiting:Class of 2021 Cajun signee bios