Gutty comebacks, key defensive takeaways and offensive outbursts have all been negated by poor punting, porous coverage on returns and other assorted blunders in the kicking game. The Warhawks (2-7, 1-4 in the Sun Belt) followed their script again on Saturday in heart-breaking fashion while dropping a 36-35 decision to Louisiana-Lafayette (8-2, 6-1).
ULM entered the contest ranked last in Sun Belt punting at 32.9 yards per attempt. ULM also came in ranked eighth among nine Sun Belt teams in punt returns (2.2 yards per return), kickoff coverage (allowing 22.6 yards per return) and field goals (5-of-12).
Saturday's loss contained more of the same. ULM squandered a 14-0 first quarter lead by gifting ULL field position with short punts. A 1-yard punt by Aaron Munoz set up ULL at its own 44 and led to the first Cajuns' touchdown drive. A 21-yard punt by Conner Fryoux let ULL start at its own 31 instead of pinned deep and fueled a game-tying march that was part of a 24-point eruption in the period.
"The first quarter we came out and played well," ULM coach Todd Berry noted on radio at halftime with his Warhawks trailing 24-14. "The second quarter on defense, we didn't play well back in the secondary. Obviously, we're continuing with our punting woes. We tried both punters and both of them have kind of not done what we need for them to do."
Undaunted, the Warhawks scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to take a 35-24 fourth-quarter lead with 3:08 left in the game. An interception return by Khairi Usher to the ULL 7 set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Jyruss Edwards, his fourth score of the day.
Cue the circus music for ULM's special teams.
A personal foul for a late hit out of bounds by Cordero Smith on the return let ULL open the drive at the ULM 48. The defense, torched for 356 passing yards by Cajun quarterbacks, allowed a quick ULL drive to narrow the score to 35-30. ULL failed to convert a two-point attempt.
With 2:05 to go, ULL's offense needed the ball back and executed its on-side kick perfectly, with 6-6 tight end Ladarius Green recovering the ball at the ULM 39. Three plays later, running back Alonzo Harris scored on a 3-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown. Again, the two-point conversion failed.
ULM's final offensive series started with 1:06 remaining at its own 28. The Warhawks moved 41 yards on six plays but the game ended when Browning ran out of bounds at the ULL 31 as time expired. Berry burned his final two timeouts before ULL's first two-point try and before the on-side kick attempt.
"The bottom line is, you've got to make plays," Berry said on his radio interview after the game. "The plays were there to be made. They made them and we didn't make them."
A common theme: Beyond the statistical evidence of a ragged kicking game, ULM has committed untimely mistakes that have proven costly in the conference collapse. In the Sun Belt-opening loss to Arkansas State, ULM had a blocked punt returned for a score in the third quarter that put the Red Wolves ahead for good.
After scoring to go ahead 21-20 with one minute left in the fourth quarter in the overtime loss last week to Western Kentucky, the Warhawks gave up a 79-yard kickoff return back to the ULM 9. WKU scored three plays later to lead 28-21 and ULM needed a quick game-tying drive to force OT.
Even in ULM's two wins, there were issues.
While beating Troy, ULM was twice charged with a lost fumble on punt returns when officials said a Warhawk touched the ball. There was also a botched extra point attempt in the game.
Against Grambling, freshman place-kicker Justin Manton missed field goals from 40 and 31 yards. ULM turned to senior Radi Jabour to open the third quarter and he booted his first kickoff out of bounds.
"I'm going to put an ad in the paper for a kicker," Berry joked that night.
Freshman Tyler Cain fumbled on a first-quarter punt return, leading to Grambling's recovery at the ULM 46 and the Tigers' only score of the night.
Offensive outing: ULM quarterback Kolton Browning completed a career-high 33 passes in 43 attempts for 258 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for a career-best 91 yards and a score. He bolted 62 yards for ULM's first touchdown in the opening quarter. Running back Jyruss Edwards scored three rushing touchdowns, the most since Frank Goodin did it against Florida International in 2009. Edwards rushed for 63 yards on 14 carries and had six catches for 39 yards and another TD.
For the fourth time in five Sun Belt Conference games, ULM outgained its opponent. ULM parted ULL for 456 total yards and collected 26 first downs. The Warhawks did not have an offensive turnover.
Quote to note I: "I'm devastated right now as a football team, just from the outcome." – ULM offensive coordinator Steve Farmer.
Quote to note II: "We want 'em. It has to be a committee pick, but if it were up to me, I'd invite (ULL) right now." -- New Orleans Bowl committee chairman Paul Valteau to Dan McDonald of SportsNola.com.
Up next: ULM (2-7, 1-4) plays host to Middle Tennessee (2-6, 1-3) on Nov. 12. Kickoff is 2:30 p.m. at Malone Stadium. MTSU lost 24-0 to Tennessee on Saturday.
Tail feathers: Cornerback Vincent Eddie led ULM with 10 tackles. … Henry Mitchell started over Darius Prelow at the hawk position, although Prelow played and made seven tackles. Prelow was questionable with an injury. …
Browning's 62-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was the longest play from scrimmage for ULM this season. The longest run in his career before that was a 24-yard gainer against Arkansas State on Oct. 8. The run was the longest for ULM since Kinsmon Lancaster's 74-yarder Nov. 8, 2008 against Middle Tennessee, and the longest touchdown since Calvin Dawson's 62-yard run Nov. 3, 2007, against Middle Tennessee.
Luther Ambrose's six catches moved him past Drouzon "Tree" Quillen for seventh place on the all-time receptions list (126). He improved his career lead in kickoff return yardage to 2,329. … How's this for great company? Brent Leonard moved past Jackie Harris (1989), Darrell McNeal (2007), Vincent Brisby (1992) and Stepfret Williams (1994) into eighth place in single-season receptions (59).
Zarrell Sanders set a new career-high in receptions, catching four passes for 40 yards. … Mitchell Bailey drew the start over Edwards and ran for 43 yards on 11 carries. His 18-yard run in the third quarter was the longest of his career.
ULL finished a perfect 5-0 at Cajun Field in 2011, marking the first undefeated season at Cajun Field since 1987 (5-0) and only the fourth ever since the facility opened in 1971. … First-year ULL coach Mark Hudspeth, a candidate for the ULM job that went to Berry, secured his eighth win in 10 games this season. Berry has seven wins in 21 games at ULM.
ULL tight end Ladarius Green set the Cajun Field record for most receptions by a Cajuns player with 13 receptions for a season-and career-high 136 yards. …ULL QB Blaine Gautier finished 30-of-47 passing for 355 yards and four scores. …The crowd of 28,176 helped the Cajuns finish with an average attendance of 29,171 in five games at Cajun Field in 2011.