By Dan McDonald, McD Media (Special Sports Radio ESPN 1420)

Even with another alarmingly bad first half behind them, all of UL’s football goals still remain within reach.

 

That’s only because of a gutty second-half effort that allowed the Ragin’ Cajuns to eke out a 30-24 win over Sun Belt Conference and state rival UL Monroe Saturday night.

 

Despite the consistent rain that kept most of a paid crowd of over 17,000 at home, the Cajuns were able to dig their way out of their now-normal first-half hole thanks to the performance of a defense that stiffened after being victimized in the opening 30 minutes.

 

After ULM took a 24-9 lead on Craig Ford’s short field goal 35 seconds before halftime, the Warhawks never scored again. With the exception of one drive, ULM never got to midfield in the second half.

 

“Can’t say enough about these guys,” said Cajun coach Mark Hudspeth, whose team is now three wins from another bowl-eligible season and an almost sure postseason appearance. “You can fix schemes and you can fix technique. You can’t fix effort and you can’t fix determination.”

 

The visiting Warhawks were held to 106 yards and five first downs in the second half. ULM’s second-half possessions included five punts – four of them coming after three-and-out series –, one missed field goal which ended the only thing that resembled a second-half drive, and a fumble with 1:38 left when Mario Osborne sacked ULM quarterback Garrett Smith and LaDarrius Kidd recovered at midfield to clinch UL’s seventh win in its last eight meetings with the Warhawks.

 

Of course, no matter how well the defense played in the second half, the Cajuns wouldn’t have kept hope alive had it not been for Brooks Haack coming off the bench and igniting the offense in the second half. Haack, who started early in the season before losing that role to Jalen Nixon, came on late in the first half and led the Cajuns to an early second-half touchdown.

 

With Haack under center the rest of the way, UL scored touchdowns on three of its seven second-half possessions after being held to three field goals in the first half. Haack wasn’t great and wasn’t perfect ... it would have been difficult for anyone to manage either one given the wet conditions. But he did complete 6-of-11 passes with the wet ball in the second half, and provided his best throw when the Cajuns needed it most.

That one came with 3:10 left and everyone in Cajun Field – a small but vocal group by that time – expected the hosts to try to work into field goal range after fighting back to make it a 24-22 game. Instead, on the first play after a fourth straight ULM punt, he lofted a deep ball down the hashmarks that Jamal Robinson ran under in stride and outlegged defenders to the end zone for a 64-yard score and a 30-24 lead after a two-point conversion.

“Jamal ran a great route,” Haack said. “He got the corner’s hips flipped, and everything all turned around. I saw it, and I just prayed the ball would get there because it was very tough out there. And he made the play.”

Robinson had been lobbying the Cajun coaches, especially quarterbacks coach Jorge Munoz, to try the long ball despite the conditions.

“They were kind of scared to go deep because the ball was wet,” Robinson said, “and they finally took the shot and gave me a chance.”

The Cajun offense didn’t have a turnover in the game and the defense forced seven fumbles from ULM.  That unit only recovered two of those, one on ULM’s first offensive play and the other on the Warhawks’ final snap, but the defense brought second-half pressure and played lock-down in the secondary in limiting ULM to 6-of-18 completions in the final half.

Special teams also did their part. A blocked punt set up UL’s second touchdown of the second half, that one coming when Haack surprised the Warhawk defense and bootlegged in from 13 yards out.

Stevie Artigue was 3-of-4 on field goals on the wet night, hitting a career-long 40-yarder early and topping that with a 41-yarder later in the first half.  Steven Coutts averaged almost 41 yards per punt and ULM lost four yards on its only return attempt, and Elijah McGuire’s 37-yard punt return turning over field position midway through the final period.

“We have needed some big plays from our special teams,” Hudspeth said, “and it’s a big advantage to us when we get them. He (Artigue) kept us in the ball game, and Coutts had a big night, he flipped the field numerous times.”

The win boosted the Cajuns to 2-1 in Sun Belt play with five league games remaining, including next Saturday’s trip to Atlanta to meet an improved Georgia State team that gave Arkansas State fits before falling 48-34 on Saturday. That will precede a quick turnaround before a Thursday night game at South Alabama, a home outing against downtrodden New Mexico State, a key road trip to Appalachian State and a Dec. 5 home finale against Troy.

If the Cajuns can somehow run the table, they’ll do no worse than share the Sun Belt title. That’s a tall order since most are already penciling in a loss at App State on Nov. 28, but the Mountaineers barely survived a three-overtime game against 2-6 Troy on Saturday.

In fact, with Georgia State battling A-State on even terms and App State barely surviving, it’s looking like there’s nothing certain about the Sun Belt heading into the final month. That could be either good or bad for UL, which needs three wins to go bowling for a fifth straight year ... the Cajuns will be favored in at least three of their final five games and could be favored in four of five.

But none of those five are sure things any more, and if UL finds a way to shed its first-half doldrums before the season plays out, they’ll once again be playing late into December.