'A few too many mistakes' cost UL in Sun Belt title game
BOONE, N.C. — The margin for error was slim-to-none as UL tried to break its 0-for-7 all-time streak against Appalachian State.
So even after a second-half comeback bid, the damage done in a dismal opening half — 12-1 App State scored five touchdowns on five straight possessions — proved too much for the 10-3 Ragin’ Cajuns to overcome in Saturday’s Sun Belt Conference championship game at Kidd Brewer Stadium here.
“We made a few too many mistakes to be a champion today, and it’s really that simple,” Cajuns coach Billy Napier said after a 45-38 loss to the No. 20 Mountaineers.
How it happened:Breakdown of the UL loss
The crazy thing is they mostly were uncharacteristic mistakes, too, as just about everything that could go wrong for UL did early on.
The Cajuns wound up getting to within one score in the final minute and change as quarterback Levi Lewis threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns, including two to freshman Peter LeBlanc and one each to Ja’Marcus Bradley and Elijah Mitchell.
But it also was a long day, one mishap after another for the Cajuns, including three costly turnovers.
After losing just six fumbles on offense all season long, the Cajuns coughed up one Saturday as quarterback Levi Lewis and running back Raymond Calais Jr. collided in the backfield. E.J. Scott blew up the play for Appalachian State, forcing and recovering the fumble himself.
Lewis said he tried to pull the ball — “Didn’t want to take more loss on the back,” he said — and it was a “miscommunication.”
The Cajuns lost a second one when Lewis let one get away on UL’s second drive of the second half.
With that, UL had its first game with multiple lost offensive fumbles since a season-opening loss to Mississippi State in New Orleans.
UL’s third drive of the second half ended with Lewis’ pass over the middle getting intercepted by Josh Thomas and returned 16 yards for a touchdown that helped make it 42-17.
“It was huge,” App State coach Eliah Drinkwitz said of the pick-six.
“On the pick, I’d say I was overaggressive, trying to get us back in the game,” Lewis added. “I (saw) the guy. I should have put it behind him, or a little bit more over the top.”
Lewis had been picked just three other times all season and had gone five straight games without an interception.
Throughout the first half, meanwhile, a UL defense that has showed strong throughout most of the season simply could not stop the Mountaineers’ offensive attack.
Going into the day, UL had been allowing an average of just 17.8 points per game — tied for 11th-best in the country in scoring defense.
But Appalachian State nearly doubled that before the break, taking a 35-17 lead into halftime as Zac Thomas threw touchdown passes of 58 and 5 yards to game MVP Darrynton Evans and the Mountaineers scored on TD runs of 5 yards by Evans, 29 by Marcus Williams and 25 by Daetrich Harrington.
App State’s first-half scoring drives consumed 75 yards in six plays, 47 in five, 76 in 14, 76 in just five and 75 in nine.
“We didn’t fit the run very well in the first half,” Napier said. “It wasn’t necessarily big-play passes; it was more of normal run fits where one player makes a mistake here or there.”
“It was 21-0 before you could look around,” Napier said.
UL kicker Stevie Artigue, meanwhile, closed the half with a career-long 53-yard field to cut the App State lead to 35-17.
But two minutes earlier Artigue missed a 39-yarder wide left, ending a streak of 11 makes in row. He also came up short on a subsequent 52-yarder.
Artigue’s last miss before the streak started, coincidentally, was a blocked 42-yarder in UL’s 17-7 regular-season loss to Appalachian State back in October.
The 52-yard miss came four plays after Asjlin Washington sacked Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas, causing a fumble recovered by Zi’Yon Hill at the Mountaineer 12.
Lewis was sacked for a 25-yard loss on third down, and an intentional grounding penalty made Artigue’s attempt even longer.
“That was the right call,” Napier said of trying the 39-yarder on fourth-and-9.
“The big missed opportunity in the game was the sack-fumble that turned into a three-and-out, (then a) grounding penalty that moved the ball back and a missed field goal. And certainly the defensive score (hurt).
“Those were the two possessions that I think you can coach better in those situations, if that makes sense,” Napier added. “And they jumped on us. I mean, we sputtered there. … For our kids to fight back, you’ve got to give them a lot of credit. But certainly Appalachia State deserves to win today. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”