BIRMINGHAM, Ala – There were so many frustrating plays during UL’s 24-20 come-from-behind win over UAB at Legion Field on Friday.
But fortunately for the Ragin’ Cajuns, there was even more motivation.
And just when it appeared that emotional intangible aspect of the matchup wouldn’t be enough to pull the Cajuns through, it was.
Down by 10 points for the second time in the game, UL’s offense came through in a way that couldn’t have made such a positive figure like DJ Looney any prouder with two touchdown drives to beat the Blazers in Birmingham for the first time in 22 games.
“I think we learned something tonight,” UL coach Billy Napier said. “I think we played for a purpose bigger than ourselves. I think the effort, the passion, the energy – we played with no fear. I think our players were consumed with competing and trying to find a way to do this to honor coach Looney.
“I think we can learn a lot here – how to play this game, but also how to live life. DJ lived that way. He lived life for other people. And certainly to have his family here, what an experience.”
For most of the night, the offense struggled to find any rhythm.
The two defenses dominated much of the night.
The Cajuns finished with 17 first downs and 286 total yards and that was after two touchdown drives of over 80 yards in the second half.
“I thought our staff did a terrific job of making adjustments,” Napier said. “They played us a little bit different in the first half than we expected. Certainly we had to adjust and I thought the staff did a really good job of that.”
At the half, UL’s offense had only collected seven first downs, 68 rushing yards and 28 in the air.
And the Cajuns trailed 13-3 with just 34 seconds left until intermission.
That’s when the game began to turn.
Napier told special teams coach Robby Discher to go for it and Chris Smith delivered a 102-yard kickoff return – officially 100 yards – for a score to narrow the gap to 13-10.
“Man, that was the turning point in the game,” Napier said. “It certainly gave us a pulse going into halftime.
“I told Disch, I said, ‘Hey, let bring it out. It’s the best play we’ve got with 30-something seconds left.’ Man, that was the turning point in the game. It certainly gave us a pulse going into halftime.”
For Smith, it’s all in a day’s work.
“We were down … down 10, so I had to just be ready to make a big play,” he said. “I’m know I’m not going to get 20 carries or 15 carries a game, so on special teams, I’ve got to my job and get ready to make a play to help the team out.
“That’s a big momentum play. I can put everybody on my back. I’m ready to play. I’ll do what it takes. I’m just here for everybody.”
That wasn’t the only risk Napier was willing to take Friday.
He went for it on fourth down three times. The Cajuns were only successful on one, but it proved to turn the game around.
Trailing 20-10, UL quickly faced a fourth-and-one from its own 31 on the next drive. Instead of punting, Napier went for it and Elijah Mitchell came through with a hard-earned three yards to extend the drive that ended with a 23-yard TD pass to Jalen Williams.
“We’ve done it in the past as well, but tonight, there’s no question in that type of games, points were going to be a premium,” Napier said. “I felt like we’ve got to find a way to move the ball and score if we’re ever going to find a way to win in the end.”
The first attempt was from UAB’s 38 and quarterback Levi Lewis missed an open Elijah Mitchell.
“Man, I hate it when we waste a play,” Napier said. “We called that play again on the last first down in the four-minute possession on third and long.
“We had a good play. Levi just missed him. We gave him some other opportunities later in the game. Nobody’s perfect. He’s certainly going to be hard on himself.”
The second one was initially ruled a first down, but UAB’s successful review reversed the call.
Then came the fourth quarter. Now only trailing 20-17 and the Blazers punting after UL’s defense came through with a stop, Eric Garror delivered a 37-yard punt return to the UAB 38.
Only, a holding call nullified it and UL had to start the drive from its 14.
“Yeah, man, I can’t to see the tape on some of this stuff,” Napier said. “I don’t want to be critical, because I don’t have the bird’s eye view that maybe you guys have. I thought the block was sound. I thought it was …. But anyway, we overcame it.
“I thought the block team did a nice job on the return. We’re talking about winning matchups, good leverage … we’ve got a returnable punt. We doubled both gunners. It was well-executed. We’re out past midfield.”
But again, the motivation overcame the frustration.
Coach Looney’s name was on their backs. It wasn’t time to let the officials’ rulings derail the task at hand.
The result was the signature drive of the season for the Cajuns – 14 plays, 86 yards, 6:40 off the clock – to finally take the lead on a 9-yard TD pass to Pearse Migl.
“For our offensive players to kind of hunker down there and say, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter. Let’s go find a way to get it done, I thought was pretty special,’” Napier said.
The rest was up to the defense and it stepped up with interceptions from Cameron Solomon and Bralen Trahan.
“First of all, it’s an honor to play for a guy like coach Looney,” Smith said. “He was a big part of our team. He got us here and he helped us out – offense, defense, special teams, it didn’t matter. He supported everybody.
“To go out there and have his name on our back and represent him and get a win, the locker room was very emotional. We were crying tears of joy. We made him proud. We kept on fighting. We represented him in the best way possible.”
Just prior to Trahan’s interception that sealed it, it was almost like all the remaining frustration was released with the 74-yard punt by Rhys Byrns to pin UAB’s offense back on its own 6.
“Coach Looney was definitely on the punt,” Byrns said. “I think he might have been pushing it up from the sky to be honest. He was there helping.”
Then Byrns and his teammates got the pleasure of seeing the impact their cardiac effort had on Looney’s parents, watching their son’s former team win in their hometown.
“It was super special,” Byrns said. “It was humbling to see coach Looney’s parents and how much it meant to them. They’re beautiful people. I love coach Looney.
“He’s the most genuine guy. To see them so happy during a time that’s so tough was really uplifting. It was awesome to see. It was nice to see that they were so happy.”
Indeed, motivation had prevailed.