Norman Vincent Peale would have been proud. Heck, he would have loved the onside kick.
The legendary author of The Power of Positive Thinking once said, “Believe in yourself, and have faith in your abilities.”
No one has ever taken that quote to heart like UL’s football team this season. All year long, with the ever-positive and optimistic Mark Hudspeth leading the charge, at no time in 2011 have the Cajuns ever wavered from believing in what most thought impossible.
That belief was the sole reason the Ragin’ Cajuns were 7-2 going into Saturday’s home finale against state rival UL Monroe. But on Saturday, when that faith was tested more than at any time this year, something magical happened at Cajun Field.
UL won a game it shouldn’t have — couldn’t have. Half of the 28,176 had lost that belief and weren’t on hand when the lightning struck, apparently not having paid any attention to the transformation of the Cajun program this season.
They’d given up when UL was down 35-24 with less than three minutes left, moments after ULM turned the game’s only turnover into a three-yard Jyruss Edwards touchdown run that gave the Warhawks an 11-point lead. The Monroe crew, a lethargic 2-6 coming into Saturday, had figuratively poured a big cooler of ice water on the Cajuns’ red-and-white hot season.
Most of us will never know what Hudspeth said to his team on the sidelines in those final three minutes, but it probably was something from Peale’s notebook — with a few more colorful words mixed in.
Suddenly, it was 35-30. Abruptly, tight end/big play monster Ladarius Green got his hands on an onside kick that bounced off a couple of players and by the hand of fate stayed in bounds. Somehow, UL went 39 yards in three quick plays and Alonzo Harris pounded his way into the end zone. Improbably, it was 36-35, and the Cajuns had stretched the boundaries of belief when most thought they’d finally reached their breaking point.
Two touchdowns and an improbable onside kick in the last 2:05, and the Cajuns checked off the first of the gauntlet of goals that Hudspeth threw at his team when he was hired to change UL football fortunes last December. He’d preached, right from the start, that the first goal was to win all five home games.
“We have a very special group here,” he said after his team spent many emotional minutes on the field after their logic-defying win. “They believe in themselves, they believe in one another, they believe in our team and they believe in our concept.”
And anyone who stuck around at Cajun Field Saturday, just as it was getting dark, now believes just as much.
The basics, as hard to believe as they are:
ULM, which led 14-0 early before the first of two Cajun comebacks, scored the last seven of 21 answered points moments after UL backup quarterback Chris Masson was intercepted by ULM’s Khairi Usher deep in Cajun territory. Edwards bowled over from three yards out for the touchdown that gave the visitors the 35-24 lead with 3:08 left, sparking an exodus of the non-believers from Cajun Field.
Sixty-three seconds and one silly personal-foul penalty on the Warhawks later, quarterback Blaine Gautier found Darryl Surgent to cap a touchdown march that made it a five-point game after a failed two-point conversion. But only 2:05 remained and UL had only one time out, and had no other option than an onside kick – something that had been successful only once in the entire Sun Belt Conference this season.
“We work it every Friday,” Hudspeth said of the play. “It’s the same plan each week, so we’ve been doing it now for nine or 10 straight weeks. Ladarius is the last guy out there because he’s the tallest and the biggest, so he’s the last straw for knocking the ball back in and keeping it from going out of bounds.”
Brett Baer’s perfectly-placed bouncer caromed off two other hands, and suddenly Green had the ball right in front of him and made a play bigger than any of his stadium-record 13 catches on the day.
Two quick Gautier completions to Robert Walker and Javone Lawson took it to the ULM 3, and Harris got the three most important yards in recent Cajun football history with 1:06 left.
ULM made it interesting in those final 66 seconds, reaching the UL 46 before the clock, a lack of time outs and sheer will power from the UL sideline finally took its toll. It was symbolic that Warhawk quarterback Kolton Browning’s desperation final-play run ended when he ran out of bounds in front of Hudspeth’s pulpit at the UL bench.
Browning did all he could, hitting 33-of-43 passes for 258 yards and a score and leading ULM in rushing with 91 yards and another touchdown. But Gautier – who threw for 355 yards and four scores and ran for 59 more – had an advantage: belief.
“I’ve never had one like this,” Hudspeth said when he was asked about past comebacks he’d been involved in. “Not being down two scores with two minutes left, and finding a way to pull it out. It just shows the character of these guys.”
And the power of positive thinking. Thanks, Norman.