ULMWarhawks.com Online Columnist
MONROE — A slow start and multiple missed opportunities came back to haunt ULM on Saturday in a 31-28 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette at Malone Stadium.
The Warhawks (6-6, 4-4) put themselves in position to win or tie the game in the waning seconds, but Craig Ford missed a 36-yard field goal wide right as time expired.
“It was a close game, and we had our chances at the end,” ULM head coach Matt Viator said. “We had our chances for sure.”
The missed field goal wasn’t the only chance ULM let get away on this cool, sunny afternoon with 18,167 in attendance.
The Warhawks spotted ULL a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter, but cut the deficit to three by halftime, thanks to a pick-six by cornerback Corey Straughter. Then ULM failed to score on two second-half red zone trips and fumbled away another opportunity.
“We were very close,” ULM receiver Marcus Green said. “We did start slow and picked it up when maybe it was a little too late. We just didn’t get it done.”
ULM’s offense finished with 344 yards of total offense but 156 of those yards came in the fourth quarter.
“Disappointing,” Viator said. “That’s the second-straight week we didn’t play very good on offense, and that’s disappointing to me.”
Trailing 31-21, Caleb Evans hit Green for a 30-yard touchdown pass with 4:47 to cut the lead to three and set up the final sequence. ULM’s defense held after the score and forced a ULL punt, which traveled 62 yards to the ULM 16.
The Warhawks moved into striking distance, converting on fourth-and-1 on a 30-yard pass from Evans to R.J. Turner to the ULL 17. Derrick Gore ran for 3 yards and Evans fired two incompletions, including a look toward the end zone that he had to throw away.
Ford lined up for the field goal and a chance to tie with four seconds left but pushed the kick right.
ULM gained bowl eligibility with its sixth win on Nov. 3 but will have to wait to see if a bowl invitation is in the cards.
“I’d love to play one more game with those guys in that locker room,” Green said. “If not, I can say we gave it all we had this last game.”
With the win, ULL (7-5, 5-3) will now represent the West Division in the Sun Belt Conference’s first championship game next week. The Cajuns will play at Appalachian State, winners of the East.
With so much on the line, the Warhawks found themselves in a bind early.
ULL needed just four plays on its opening series to find the end zone as Andre Nunez hit Ryheem Malone for a 40-yard touchdown pass with 13:32 left in the first quarter. Malone caught two passes for 70 yards on the 75-yard drive.
The Cajuns were fruitful on their second march to go ahead 14-0 with 4:41 left in the first. Nunez hit Ja’Marcus Bradley for a 20-yard touchdown to end the 11-play, 90-yard drive.
ULL outgained ULM 184 to 54 in the opening period as each team ran 15 plays.
ULM made it a 14-7 game when Evans found Austin Vaughn on a 13-yard touchdown pass with 14:25 showing in the second quarter. The Warhawks moved 59 yards in 11 plays for Vaughn’s first career touchdown reception.
The Cajuns responded quickly to go up 21-7 on the ensuing possession. ULL motored 65 yards in seven plays and scored on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Nunez to Trey Ragas.
Green’s 43-yard kickoff return and a 22-yard run by Gore to the ULL 23 put ULM right back in scoring position. Capping a five-play, 54-yard drive, Kayin White took an inside handoff in from 5 yards for a 21-14 score with 9:14 left in the half.
ULL scored on its fourth-straight possession with a 37-yard field goal by Kyle Pfau with 4:22 remaining until halftime. The Cajuns covered 56 yards in 10 plays to make it 24-14.
ULM’s offense had just gone three-and-out and netted 16 yards on a punt when Straughter gave the Warhawks a huge lift. The sophomore cornerback picked off Nunez and returned the interception 66 yards for a touchdown.
“It was about reading the QB’s drops,” Straughter said. “We knew what the QB liked to do in those situations, and I tried to make a play for my team.”
With 2:25 left in the second quarter, ULM trailed 24-21 and had new life.
“There was a lot of energy on the sidelines,” Straughter said. “I felt it. We picked the offense up a little bit. That was big going into halftime.”
Despite being outgained 337-123 in the first half, ULM trailed by just three points after two quarters, thanks to the clutch defensive play.
“We got behind there, but our kids battled back,” Viator said at halftime.
The third quarter was scoreless with a flurry of defensive stands and a pair of turnovers by ULM.
The Warhawks received the second-half kickoff but went three-and-out with a punt. ULL gained just 24 yards on nine plays before Pfau missed a 50-yard field goal wide right.
A 34-yard pass to Markis McCray took the ball to the ULL 9 and the Warhawks faced third-and- goal at the 5 when Evans was intercepted in the end zone by Michael Jacquet III with 5:03 left in the third.
ULL gambled on fourth-and 1 from its own 29 and the Warhawks stuffed the attempt when Nunez bobbled the shotgun snap as Ty Shelby and Tyler Johnson converged for the tackle.
The Warhawks would squander the opportunity three plays later when McCray fumbled as he battled to pick up a first down. Justin Middleton raked the ball loose and recovered at the ULM 21.
“We gave up a lot on defense early, but we kind of settled in,” Viator said. “We had a couple of good drives there in the first half and some chances there, but you can’t turn the ball over in the red zone like we did. We had an opportunity there to tie it or go up and maybe put a little more pressure on them where they can’t run it every down.”
The Cajuns faced another fourth-and-1 from the ULL 30 and Ragas converted this time on a 2-yard run as the third quarter expired. The drive stayed alive on a crucial pass interference call and bore fruit with 11:49 left in the game as Levi Lewis completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Mitchell, giving ULL a 31-21 lead.
“We never were able to regain the lead and force them out of what they were doing,” Viator said. “It was a great game and I thought our team played extremely hard. Both teams did. We competed. We just needed to make one more play, possibly and we didn’t.”