LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Don’t tell Louisiana-Lafayette coach Billy Napier that Saturday’s game isn’t significant for his No. 23-ranked football squad.
The Ragin’ Cajuns (10-1, 7-0) have already clinched the host spot for the Dec. 4 Sun Belt Conference championship game by winning the league’s West Division for the fourth straight year. Saturday’s regular-season finale against Sun Belt and state rival Louisiana-Monroe won’t affect that. But to Napier, that shouldn’t matter.
“There’s a lot of motivation to play our best football of the season Saturday,” said Napier, who is purportedly on the short list for coaching jobs at several Power Five programs. “We have some momentum, and our players take great pride in doing things the right way and send these seniors out the right way.”
ULL is riding a 10-game win streak, tied for the fourth-longest in the FBS, and is 31-5 since the start of the 2019 season. Two of those wins came in regular-season finales against ULM (4-7, 2-5), which started out 4-3 after a winless 2019 campaign but has since lost four straight. The Cajuns romped past the Warhawks 70-20 in last year’s finale.
“I think it’s absolutely fabulous that they have a four-win season right now,” said first-year Warhawk coach Terry Bowden, who is in his sixth rebuilding task in his coaching career. “We were projected to win one and a half games this year, that was the over-under. We didn’t win any last year and never led in a game, but whether it’s four wins or five wins we’ve got our nose pointed in the right direction.”
ULM fell at LSU 27-14 last Saturday, missing two fourth-and-goal pass plays, while ULL rolled past Liberty 42-14 to snap the Flames’ 15-game home winning streak in a game where the Cajuns were the betting-line underdog.
“Moral victories I’m not concerned about,” Bowden said of the loss to the Tigers, “but I think our players gained some respect from our own ULM fans.”
Led by linebacker Chauncey Manac’s four sacks, tying for the most in a game in the FBS this season, ULL’s defense forced six turnovers and sacked highly-regarded Liberty quarterback Malik Willis seven times. The Cajun defense held Willis to 162 passing yards and 28 rush yards while scoring the game’s final 21 points.
“We were able to get control of the game in the second half,” Napier said, “in what I thought was an exceptional defensive performance.”
Last year’s 70-point output was ULL’s highest ever against an FBS opponent.
“Last year was different for a lot of reasons,” Napier said. “We had played ULM down to the last play the previous two years. We understand the implications of an instate rivalry game.”
Some other things to watch in the season-finale rivalry:
NOT GETTING THEIR KICKS
In Napier’s first two seasons, the Cajuns survived with season-finale wins over ULM because of missed Warhawk field goals. ULM missed a 36-yarder on the final play in 2018 in a 31-28 ULL win, and a missed 35-yarder with :02 left gave the Cajuns a 31-30 victory two years ago at Cajun Field.
If that circumstance happens again, the Warhawks might be more fortunate. Senior Oklahoma transfer Calum Sutherland is 15-of-20 on field goals this season, and his 53-yarder with 1:44 left broke a tie and gave ULM an upset 31-28 home win over Liberty.
“He’s definitely a weapon for us,” Bowden said of Sutherland, whose 71 points are more than twice as many as the next-closest Warhawk.
LEVI FITS WELL
ULL quarterback Levi Lewis will play in his 55th game and make his 37th straight start for the Cajuns on Saturday with 18 touchdown passes and only four interceptions this year. Three of those touchdowns came in last week’s win at Liberty and added to his school-record 72 career TD passes.
“There was a lot of talk about their quarterback,” Napier said, “but we’ve got a quarterback too and I think a pretty special one. He doesn’t get enough credit, but what Levi does is he wins. Our offense is very quarterback driven, and the number of decisions that he makes throughout the game, I would put up against any offense in the country.”
Lewis, who threw for three scores and ran for two more against ULM last year, needs 656 passing yards in his final three games to pass Jake Delhomme for the most in ULL history.
ULM ranks second nationally in fewest penalties, drawing only 41 flags through 11 games (Eastern Michigan leads with 40). That’s far and away the lowest penalty total in the Sun Belt.
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