ULMWarhawks.com Online Columnist
MONROE — An afternoon showdown between Sun Belt Conference co-leaders turned into a beat down at Malone Stadium.
ULM football delivered its most complete performance of the season on Saturday to manhandle Georgia Southern, 44-25, at JPS Field.
“I thought we looked fast tonight,” said ULM coach Matt Viator, whose team was coming off an open date. “We looked like we had a fast football team on both sides of the ball.”
The outcome, along with Louisiana-Lafayette’s 26-16 loss at Troy, moved ULM (5-4, 3-2) into sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt’s West Division.
“We’ve got three games left and the mission is to win all three,” ULM quarterback Caleb Evans said. “Each week in practice, we’re going to go in with the focus we had this week.”
The Warhawks were dynamite on offense, thanks to a flurry of chunk plays that helped the unit pile of 573 yards. Evans completed 13-of-22 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 102 yards and two scores on 15 attempts. Marcus Green had two catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns while tailback Derrick Gore gained 114 yards and scored a touchdown on 19 attempts.
“We were throwing it, running it, it was pretty much pick your poison today,” Green said. “The offense did a pretty good job of executing the game plan.”
Meanwhile, ULM’s defense passed muster against Georgia Southern’s triple option attack, holding the Eagles to 138 yards rushing. The 216 yards total offense was a new low for ULM under Viator. With the visitors forced into uncharacteristic passing mode, the Warhawks registered five sacks to ice the cake.
“We earned it,” ULM mike linebacker Chase Day said. “We prepared hard all week. Even in the bye week, we got a little taste of Georgia Southern before we went home.”
Georgia Southern (7-2, 4-1) came in riding a five-game winning streak after beating then-No. 25 Appalachian State 34-15 on Oct.25. The Eagles, who were tied for first in the Sun Belt West Division, received 62 votes in the AP Poll and 32 in the Coaches Poll last week.
“They didn’t turn the ball over, but they fell behind,” Viator said. “Once you fall behind, now you’re playing catch up.”
ULM came ready to play in this pivotal contest and pounced on their visitors from the start.
“That was the game plan,” Evans said. “We wanted to get up on them early and make them get outside their offense, which we made them do.”
“I’ll take my hat off to Coach Matt Kubik and our offensive staff,” Viator said. “We went after them.”
Evans fueled a flawless opening drive that covered 80 yards in seven plays. The junior quarterback hit two passes for 57 yards, including a 41-yard strike to Markis McCray, and rushed for 20 yards, including his 5-yard touchdown run, to give ULM a 6-0 lead.
After Georgia Southern missed a 26-yard field-goal attempt, the Warhawks went into quick-strike mode on their next chance as Evans and Green hooked up on a slant pass that turned into a runaway 80-yard touchdown. ULM led 13-0 with 6:43 left in the opening period.
The second quarter brought more of the same for the erupting Warhawks. Evans and Green connected again on a slant that covered 69 yards and boosted ULM’s lead to 20-0 with 13:58 remaining in the half.
“It was very energizing,” Green said of ULM’s big plays. “Short drives save legs a little bit. We were fortunate to have big plays.”
ULM’s defense played well throughout the first half, particularly in the red zone. Georgia Southern ground out 53 yards in 14 plays over 8:18 but had to settle for a 38-yard Tyler Bass field goal with 5:40 to go in the second quarter to draw within 20-3.
“When we get the lead, we don’t want to give it back,” Day said. “We got the momentum, so we want to keep it.”
R.J. Turner, who had a wide-open drop in the first quarter, made amends with a 57-yard catch in the second period. Turner’s big play and Gore’s 12-yard run on fourth-and-1 set up Josh Johnson’s first career touchdown on a 1-yard run to give ULM a 27-3 advantage with 2:49 showing.
The only sour note came late in the first half. Evans was intercepted and the Warhawks flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play to give Georgia Southern the ball at the 22. The Eagles capitalized immediately with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Shai Werts to Mark Michaud to cut the home lead to 27-10 with 1:02 before the break.
Frustrating, yes, but hardly a back breaker.
ULM’s defense set the tone for the second half with a quick three-and-out, giving the Warhawks exactly what the needed to keep surging.
The Warhawks stayed in their offensive groove too, motoring 67 yards in 11 plays and scoring on Gore’s 1-yard plunge to lead 34-10 with 8:31 left in the third quarter. Tyler Lamm made a pair of first-down catches to keep the chains moving.
Another ULM turnover turned into points for Georgia Southern as Jessie Liptrot intercepted Evans and returned the ball 57 yards for a touchdown. Wesley Fields ran in the 2-point conversion for a 34-18 score with 3:15 to go in the third.
Gore’s 35-yard run on the next series cranked up another scoring march as ULM recouped the points. Evans slashed into the end zone from 2 yards out to cap the seven-play, 75-yard drive and the Warhawks were up 41-18 with 14 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Georgia Southern gave ULM an uneasy feeling with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown with 10:37 left in the game.
But on this day, ULM had far too many things go its way to be done in by a handful of critical mistakes. Craig Ford’s 32-yard field goal with 4:16 remaining put the finishing touches on a job well done.
“We had a bye week and brought the energy to the field,” ULM defensive end Kerry Starks said. “We set the tone. Offense got going and once they get going, there’s no stopping us.”
Added tight end Josh Pederson: “Both sides of the ball played phenomenal today. On offense, we scored and scored fast and that’s always good. The defense came out and put out some three-and-out shutouts. That was awesome to see.”
ULM plays at South Alabama on Saturday, Nov. 10. Kickoff is 4 p.m. The Jaguars (2-7, 1-4) lost 38-14 at Arkansas State on Saturday.