DALLAS — Louisiana-Lafayette’s seemingly comfortable 17-point lead over UTSA disappeared during the second half of the First Responder Bowl.
The Ragin’ Cajuns responded with a time-consuming winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter and a critical defensive stop in a finish reminiscent of their entire season.
Trey Ragas scored on a 1-yard plunge with 7:16 left and No. 16 Louisiana-Lafayette drove 72 yards in 12 plays to beat UTSA 31-24 on Saturday at SMU’s Ford Stadium.
“We made it entertaining again,” Louisiana-Lafayette coach Billy Napier said. “We didn’t have any panic, had great poise. Certainly could have played better in some areas. This group – when it counts, we’ve put some things together.”
Louisiana-Lafayette (10-1) finished with double-digit wins for the second straight year after never previously doing so and came from behind to win six times this season. Napier said there was no need for talk on Saturday after the 17-point lead disappeared.
“It’s too late to have a rah-rah speech,” he said. “At that point you’ve either got the ownership, the character to regroup and make adjustments to compete and play through the ups and downs of the game or you don’t.”
UTSA associate head coach/offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. directed the Roadrunners after first-year coach Jeff Traylor twice tested positive for COVID-19 this week and didn’t accompany the team.
“It could have easily gotten out of hand,” Lunney said “Our guys came to life and turned the tide. We just couldn’t finish the game. We did just enough in all three phases to lose the game, but we also did just enough in all three phases to be in the game.”
Lunney said 15-20 other team members, including assistant coaches and players, also didn’t make the trip.
Levi Lewis passed for 146 yards and first-half touchdowns of 15 and 10 yards for Louisiana-Lafayette. Elijah Mitchell added a 3-yard touchdown run, and Kenneth Almendares kicked a 31-yard field goal, The Ragin’ Cajuns won their seventh straight game following a loss to Coastal Carolina in mid-October.
Mitchell ran for 127 yards after averaging 83.4 per game during the season as Louisiana-Lafayette rushed for 265 yards.
“It started off with the offensive line,” Mitchell said. “We go at it during practice, and we just try to move it onto the (game) field.”
Frank Harris had touchdown passes of 29 yards and 10 yards among his 208 yards and an 11-yard scoring run for the Roadrunners. Hunter Duplessis kicked a 20-yard field goal that tied with 13:32 left.
UTSA outgained Louisiana-Lafayette 431 yards to 411, had two turnovers to the Ragin’ Cajuns’ one and missed a field goal attempt. Harris bemoaned his interception on UTSA’s opening possession and a wayward backward pass deep in Roadrunners territory in the first minute of the third quarter that was ruled a fumble, recovered by Louisiana-Lafayette on UTSA’s 3-yard line.
“We had a lot of self-inflected wounds,” Harris said. “Like my interception and then the one I threw that ended up being a fumble. We just can’t do that.”
Lunney said not having Traylor on the sideline provided extra motivation for the Roadrunners.
“You see a team that loves their head coach, appreciates what he’s brought to the table,” Lunney said. “During the course of the week, once we found out Coach wasn’t going to be with us that the players certainly wanted to make him proud.”
Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin’ Cajuns, co-champions of the Sun Belt Conference with Coastal Carolina, will finish as a ranked team for the first time, having moved the FBS in 1982.
UTSA: The Roadrunners, playing in the program’s second bowl, fell short of compiling the first four-game winning streak in the program’s nine-year history.