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FIU Golden Panthers defense can’t slow down Ragin’ Cajuns

FIU didn’t look like the Sun Belt Conference’s preseason favorite Saturday night. In fact, the Panthers didn’t look like the team that pushed nationally ranked Louisville to the brink one week ago.

FIU’s defense had no answer for Louisiana-Lafayette’s offense, spotting the Ragin’ Cajuns an early 24-0 lead and eventually losing 48-20 in its Sun Belt opener in front of 21,109 at Cajun Field.

The Cajuns (3-1), now 2-0 in league play after a conference-opening road win at Troy three weeks ago, rolled up 501 yards in total offense — 296 of those in the first half when they built a 31-14 lead. ULL then added a touchdown and a field goal in the first 4:12 of the second half to lock up its second win in a row against FIU and its third in the past four meetings.

FIU, which had allowed only 28 points to then-18th-ranked Louisville one week earlier in a narrow 28-21 home loss, gave up more points than that in the first half as ULL quarterbacks Blaine Gautier and Terrance Broadway each accounted for two touchdowns.

“We’re not playing good football right now,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “We’ve got to find a way to get better and improve.”

True freshman quarterback E.J. Hilliard rushed for one score and guided the Panthers (1-4, 0-1) to two others on 1-yard runs by Jeremiah Harden and Kedrick Rhodes. But the Panthers, who had outgained three of their first four opponents despite winning only once in four outings, had no answer for a ULL offense that went over 500 yards for the fourth time in its past 10 games.

Hilliard, getting his first collegiate start in replacing injured sophomore Jake Medlock, finished 16 of 26 for 204 yards and two interceptions, providing most of an FIU offense that totaled a season-low 259 yards and only 10 first downs.

“He’s trying his heart out,” Cristobal said of Hilliard. “We’re not going to put it on just one guy.”

The Panthers didn’t get anything going offensively until midway through the second quarter when Hilliard turned in a big play at a point where FIU had only one first down. On second down from his own 39, Hilliard hit crossing wide receiver Willis Wright on a bubble screen, and the junior from Miami outran the ULL defense until cornerback Jemarlous Moten ran him out of bounds at the Cajuns’ 3. Hilliard optioned left and scored untouched on the next play.

Before that, the hosts had put up 24 unanswered points, and the closest FIU came to challenging came on its next possession after senior Jose Cheeseborough recovered a Cajuns fumble at the ULL 37. After a personal foul penalty on the Cajuns, backup running back Jeremiah Harden carried four times in a row, the last one a 1-yard run with 5:59 left in the half to cut the margin to 24-14.

But that was FIU’s last gasp, as backup quarterback Broadway guided ULL 66 yards in eight plays just before halftime. He completed three consecutive passes to Harry Peoples for 32 yards to the FIU 4, and Broadway scored one play later with 43 seconds left in the half.

“We finally got something going in the second quarter,” Cristobal said. “We had the ball back after the two scores, and we didn’t convert a third down, and then they got the score right before half. That was a big swing.”

FIU’s defense allowed 15 first downs to the Cajuns in the first half alone, and the Panthers had only five first downs — three on the two scoring drives — and were 0 for 6 on third downs.

The host Cajuns forced punts on FIU’s first two possessions, and the Panthers didn’t get a first down until Hilliard hit Wayne Times with a 20-yard toss to start their third possession. An earlier 5-yard catch, one of six catches for 48 yards he had in the game, extended the Miami senior’s streak of 22 consecutive games with at least one reception.

Before that, ULL struck first with an 82-yard march that took only nine plays. Gautier had two completions on the drive and also had a key 21-yard option run that took ULL to the FIU 4. Gautier scored two plays later on a 3-yard scamper.

Moments later, the Cajuns had the ball back, and Gautier’s two passes to wide receiver Bradley Brown — his first two catches of the season — included a 45-yarder that took it to the FIU 18. Four plays later, Gautier hit tight end Jacob Maxwell with a 2-yard toss on the back line of the end zone for a 14-0 lead.

Hilliard was picked off on the second play after the ensuing kickoff, with Moten getting a hand on a pass and collecting it right in front of the Cajun bench at the FIU 31. That set up Brett Baer’s 46-yard field goal.

Gautier left with an apparent injured left wrist one play before the field goal, and after FIU’s fourth punt of the first 16 minutes, Broadway came on and the Cajuns never missed a beat. This time, ULL went 55 yards in only six plays, with Broadway scoring on a 13-yard option with 11:38 left in the half for a 24-0 lead.

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