Finales are characterized as dramatic and exciting, the ending to performance or public event. And the regular season curtain call for the Ragin’ Cajuns brings a need for a standing ovation.
For the first time in school history, the Ragin’ Cajuns achieved a 10-game winning season, making their record heading into the conference championship 10-2. Pretty good for Head Football Coach Billy Napier’s second season.
Before Saturday, Louisiana was on a five-game winning streak, now six. They claimed their title as the 2019 Sun Belt West champions. And on a senior day at Cajun Field, they looked to add a historic season to their continued accomplishments.
Louisiana quarterback Levi Lewis set the tone early in the first quarter throwing a 36-yard touchdown pass to Jamal Bell, putting the Ragin’ Cajuns on the board first. ULM answered back going seven plays for 62 yards to even the score.
In the second quarter, Lewis threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to a familiar face, senior Ja’Marcus Bradley. Bradley ended the game with 127 receiving yards and one touchdown.
But the Warhawks were not backing down, scoring quickly on a 47-yard touchdown.
To cap off the first half, Louisiana turned to their game-changer, running back Raymond Calais. Calais busted open for an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play of the third possession. Calais would add more yards to his stats, recording 107 yards on eight carries and one touchdown.
That electrifying score would give the Ragin’ Cajuns the lead heading into halftime, 21-14.
At the start of the third quarter, ULM got on the board quickly with a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Caleb Evans to Jonathan Hodoh. The Ragin’ Cajuns then pulled together a five-play possession for 75 yards leading to a two-yard touchdown from Lewis to Peter Leblanc.
As the game continued to go back in forth, the Warhawks went for the field goal before the beginning of the fourth quarter to make their possible comeback more attainable, 28-24.
99 yards and eight plays later, ULM scored on an 11-yard run from Austin Vaughn to give them the lead 30-28.
The clock started at 7 minutes and 56 seconds for the Ragin’ Cajuns as they planned to orchestrate their potential winning drive.
Lewis started on Louisiana’s 28-yard line. A series of plays marched the Ragin’ Cajuns down to ULM territory on the 42-yard line. After an incomplete pass to Bradley. Louisiana was faced with a fourth down and needed nine yards to keep their hopes alive.
With 3 minutes and 45 seconds left, Lewis ran for 14-yards to keep Louisiana alive. Three rushing attempts by running back Elijah Mitchell kept the chains moving for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Mitchell had 102 yards on 19 carries for the night.
On a 3rd down, Lewis threw an incomplete pass to Bradley to have Louisiana in another 4th down situation.
Lewis ended the night completing 15 passes on 23 attempts for 207 yards and three touchdowns. Something that Coach Napier attributes to the ability of Lewis to show up in critical moments alluding to his late scramble to keep Louisiana alive.
“That possession was a good example of our football team; we found a way,” Napier said. “There was different opportunities in that possession to make some plays but certainly Levi’s ability to make some plays on his feet. I think he had a third and three at one point in that possession and on fourth and nine when he scrambled. You’ve got to give that kid credit he is at his best when it matters the most.”
Louisiana needed four yards to get the first down; Coach Napier decided to bring out the field goal unit. Putting all his trust in kicker Steve Artigue.
On ULM’s 10-yard line, 1:21 remaining, Artigue took the 27-yard field goal. The ref’s put their arms straight up as they signaled the field goal, good.
Artigue spoke on the last moments of the game, as he explained how he was more nervous for Warhawks kicker Jared Porter than for himself.
“I was about a hundred times more nervous for him kicking than me kicking, just because I can’t control it,” Artigue explained. “I knew I could make the field goal but I can’t make the field goal for him or make him miss. I was so glad he missed, I usually pull for them because I hate seeing them in that position, but we needed that.”
There was time remaining, but Louisiana was in the driver-seat with a one-point lead, 31-30.
With two seconds left in the game, history repeated itself. Porter missed the 35-yard field goal, giving Louisiana the victory.
Coach Napier explained at the podium after the game that ULM played a great game and executed well in all three phases of the matchup. Even though it was a tough game, Coach Napier was proud of how his team responded.
“One thing I’m extremely proud of and talked to some of our seniors, it was their last opportunity and they played some of their best football at critical times,” Napier explained. “And you gotta give Steve Artigue a lot of credit, what that guy’s been through in his career and the way he’s performed for our team in the second half of the season is the best example of that.”
Napier gave credit to the senior class for how they have affected the improvement of this program and their willingness to be more than just great football players.
“I’m proud of this senior group, certainly a talented group, but more than that a just a good group of men,” Napier said. “Made of the right stuff, character, great leaders, great examples, they have been at the heart of what we have been able to do here for the second and last year, certainly this year.”
Defensively, Napier was most proud of linebacker Jacques Boudreaux, who made his presence known in the second half. Boudreaux had 12 tackles and a critical play in the last seconds of the game as he broke up a pass to help Louisiana keep ULM off the board.
“I think he’s one of the guys I'm most proud of. Watching him grow and develop as a leader. To build some confidence, his ability to communicate, his energy, his positivity,” Napier said. “The way he can challenge people and do it the right way. He’s a really mature guy, he’s one of my favorite players of all time. The way he handles his business, I have tons of respect for him as a person.”
Artigue among this senior class understood how special this win was, but it was even more special knowing that he did it with the same group of guys that always knew they could accomplish something this great.
“It was so important, for the record and for the senior class. I remember coming in with the senior class and we knew we were going to be special when we were seniors and we are,” Artigue said. “It just feels amazing to do this for Lafayette, your hometown, it’s awesome. Last game in Cajun Field, it’s a good way to go out."
As the locker room lit their cigars to celebrate, a tradition that Calais revealed at the podium was started last year after beating ULM, and the saying “smoke 'em if you got ‘em” went along with it. Coach Napier still wanted to give his appreciation to everyone involved in the making history.
“A significant accomplishment here and this group of people, and when I say that not just the players,” Napier said. “We got hundreds of people that work directly affects our football program, and for them to come back here for the rest of their lives and say they were a part of that 2019 team that won 10 games for the first time in school history, that’s a pretty special deal.”
The stage is now set for a Sun Belt Championship rematch next week in Boone, North Carolina. And as the Ragin’ Cajuns plan to celebrate tonight, their minds are already starting to prepare for next week, as Coach Napier attests that tomorrow they are back to work to prepare for their ultimate goal.
“We’re going to celebrate tonight. We’re excited about the opportunity to play in the Sun Belt conference championship game next week against Appalachian State and represent the western division,” Napier said. “And we’re going to enjoy this thing tonight and roll up our sleeves tomorrow and get back to work.”