College football: ULM cruises past South Alabama, becomes bowl-eligible

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Paul Letlow
ULMWarhawks.com Online Columnist

MOBILE, Ala. — The ULM Warhawks are on a roll and positioned for a bowl.

The Warhawks surged past South Alabama 38-10 on Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium for a fourth-straight win that secured bowl eligibility for ULM for the first time since 2013.

“That was the first of the goals we talked about this year,” ULM head coach Matt Viator said. “When we listed the goals, the first was to become bowl eligible. The second was to try was to try to win the West.”

With another solid all-around performance, ULM (6-4, 4-2) also maintained sole possession of first place in the Sun Belt West Division standings.

“I think it starts with our defense too,” Viator said. “Our defense is going out there and playing with confidence and feeling like we can be the aggressors and get after the other team’s offense. Our offense, when we get going like we have the last couple of weeks, we’re hard to stop when we’re throwing and going like we did.”

ULM’s defense continued its stellar play of late, contributing four sacks, nine tackles for losses and limiting the Jaguars to 218 yards and 11 first downs. South Alabama (2-8, 1-5) punted seven times in the game including five times in the second half as the Warhawks clamped down.

“We’re finally clicking,” said ULM linebacker David Griffith, who made eight tackles, two for losses and half a sack. “Everybody is believing and trusting in the process. It’s fun now.”

The ULM offense rang up 551 yards and scored on six consecutive possessions on drives covering 70 or more yards while building the lead. Quarterback Caleb Evans connected on 27-of-32 passes for 367 yards and two touchdowns and ran 12 times for 54 yards and two scores. Evans completed throws to 11 different receivers.

“Guys are keeping focused and keeping locked in,” Evans said. “It’s a family at the end of the day, with support from the offensive and defensive guys. We know what we can accomplish if we keep that in mind.”

Senior receiver D’Marius Gillespie had a breakout game with a career-high 159 yards on seven catches and one touchdown. He stepped in and stepped up when R.J. Turner re-injured his ankle early in the contest.

“Getting this opportunity to play and have a big game in the game that gets us bowl eligible, I can’t explain how great that is,” the fifth-year senior said.

ULM faced adversity early in the game but came storming back.

Special teams ace Marcus Green made an uncharacteristic muff on a punt return in the first quarter while struggling to make the catch in windy conditions, and the Jaguars took full advantage. One play after the turnover, red-shirt freshman quarterback Cephus Johnson tossed a rainbow-touchdown pass 34 yards to Jordan McCray to take a 7-0 lead.

“It was kind of demoralizing to start, but the guys came together,” Viator said.

“We started the game fast,” USA coach Steve Campbell said. “But those guys started making plays.”

Indeed, Green made amends on ULM’s next series with 58-yard run, helping set up a 21-yard field goal by Craig Ford to narrow the gap to 7-3 with 7:27 showing in the first.

The Warhawks mounted another strong drive, covering 72 yards on 10 plays, that featured a clutch fourth-and-9 conversion pass from Evans to Zachari Jackson for 16 yards. ULM faced the decision at the USA 29 and elected to stay aggressive.

Three plays later, Evans scored his eighth rushing touchdown on a 4-yard run to give ULM a 10-7 lead with 36 seconds to go in the opening quarter.

Operating with Cole Garvin at quarterback early in the second quarter, South Alabama drove 51 yards in 12 plays and tied the game at 10-10 on Gavin Patterson’s 31-yard field goal.

Jonathan Hodoh’s first touchdown catch of the season gave ULM a 17-10 lead with 6:24 to go before halftime. Hodoh’s 29-yard grab on a pump pass from Evans capped an eight-play, 70-yard drive.

“I can’t say how happy I am tonight for guys like Gillespie and Jonathan Hodoh and look at what Zach Jackson did,” Viator said. “R.J. Turner tweaked an ankle in practice Tuesday and didn’t go Wednesday and Thursday. We sat him the first quarter and then he played a couple of plays and was out. We were able to go with those guys.”

ULM’s Wesley Thompson contributed a key play on special teams as he blocked a 38-yard field-goal attempt by South Alabama’s Patterson. Chase Day recovered at the ULM 25 with 2:01 left in the half.

The Warhawks didn’t waste the opportunity either as they moved 73 yards in eight plays, with Evans finding Gillespie on a 5-yard toss with 19 seconds to play in the second quarter.

ULM carried a 24-10 lead into halftime, then started the second half with a full head of steam.

The defense dealt the Jaguars a quick three-and-out before the offense delivered a swift three-play, 70-yard drive that featured a 50-yard catch by Gillespie and ended on a 10-yard touchdown run by Green. ULM led 31-10 early in the third quarter.

Evans added a 15-yard touchdown run with 5:50 to go in the third, capping an eight-play, 77-yard drive to give the Warhawks their 38-10 advantage.

“I just like the way that we’re playing right now,” Viator said. “The kids are having fun, flying around with a lot of energy. It says a lot about them, to lose four games in a row and come back and win four games in a row. Hopefully, we can keep going.”

Up next: On Nov. 17, ULM visits Jonesboro, Arkansas, to face Arkansas State (6-4, 3-3) in a key Sun Belt Conference West Division showdown. Kickoff is 2 p.m.

“When you win games like this, always the next game is bigger,” Viator said. “That’s just the way it happens. I was telling them, we had the big win against Georgia Southern and all of a sudden next week is bigger to stay in the lead in the West. You know how big the next one is going to Jonesboro to play those guys. I think we’re up to the challenge.”

The Red Wolves gained bowl eligibility for the eighth-straight season on Saturday, with a 44-16 win at Coastal Carolina.