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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — From a 2-5 start to Cure Bowl champions.
Tulane (7-6) capped a turnaround season under coach Willie Fritz with a 41-24 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, the Green Wave’s first postseason win in 16 years.
Darius Bradwell rushed for a career-best 150 yards and two touchdowns and graduate transfer Justin McMillan improved to 5-1 as the team’s starting quarterback by tossing a first-quarter TD pass to Terren Encalade and running for a late score in the 29th meeting in an intrastate rivalry that dates to 1911.
“Every game this season was kind of fourth-and-inches. Every one was tough,” Fritz, completing his third year at the American Athletic Conference school, said. “Starting 2-5 and to come back and win this game is very special.”
Bradwell scored on runs of 15 and 4 yards while setting bowl records for rushing attempts (35) and yards for Tulane (7-6), which won a bowl game for the first time since the 2002 Hawaii Bowl.
“We kept feeding him and he did a nice job getting vertical,” Fritz said. “He’s a hard guy to arm tackle at about 235 pounds.”
The Green Wave also got a rushing TD from Amare Jones and outgained the Ragin’ Cajuns 337 yards to 84 on the ground to improve to 23-6 all-time against the Rajun’ Cajuns.
Lousiana-Lafayette coach Bill Napier said he didn’t want the result to leave a “blackeye” on what the Sun Belt Conference runner-up accomplished in its first season under him.
“When our football team doesn’t perform as well as we can it’s 100 percent my responsibility,” Napier said. “We’re going to have the integrity to look in the mirror and adjust the things and fix the things we need to do.”
The Ragin’ Cajuns (7-7), coming off a loss to Appalachian State in the Sun Belt championship game, rallied from a 24-7 deficit to pull within three points on Jarrod Jackson’s 15-yard TD reception with just over 10 minutes remaining.
McMillan put the game away, leading a 75-yard drive Bradwell finished with his second TD and later scoring himself on a 16-yard run that put Tulane up 41-24.
Andre Nunez completed 8 of 17 passes for 136 yards and one TD, however Louisiana-Lafayette’s productive running tandem of Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell were not a factor after falling behind early.
“Very inefficient, in particular after the opening drive,” which resulted in the Ragin’ Cajuns taking a 7-0 lead on Raymond Calais’ 38-yard touchdown run,” Napier said.
“Today’s outcome was a direct reflection who blocked better, who tackled better, who caught the ball better,” Napier added. “There’s nothing secret about what happened out there today.”
Tulane won four of five down the stretch in the regular season to not only qualify for its first bowl berth in five years, but also finish with a winning record (5-3 AAC West Division) in league play for the first time since 2014.
McMillan was one of the keys, providing consistent quarterback play while throwing for more than 1,100 yards and accounting for 13 touchdowns — nine passing and four rushing.
The graduate transfer from LSU, where he appeared on only two games from 2015-17, was 11 of 18 passing with one interception Saturday. He finished with 217 yards total offense — 145 passing and 72 rushing.
Louisiana-Lafayette: Ragas rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and Mitchell fell just shy of 1,000 this season, however neither was a factor after the Ragin’ Cajuns fell behind by double-digits. Ragas was limited to 40 yards on 10 carries, and Mitchell had 26 yards on six attempts and scored on a 3-yard run in the third quarter.
“You can’t start slow in a big game like this and expect to overcome things like that,” tight end Matt Barnes said. “We showed some fight and had opportunities to win the game.”
Tulane: The Green Wave rushed for 483 yards and finished with a Cure Bowl-record and season-best 28 first downs. Bradwell topped 100 yards for the third time, finishing the season with 1,134 yards and 11 rushing TDs.
Louisiana-Lafayette: Nunez is a senior, however Ragas, Mitchell and Calas are all underclassmen for the Ragin’ Cajuns, who moving forward have a solid foundation to build on Napier, who inherited a team that went 5-7 last season.
Tulane: McMillan has a year of eligibility remaining, as do Bradwell and Corey Dauphine, who combined for 1,928 yards and 18 TDs rushing. The Green Wave have never made bowl appearances in consecutive seasons, but will enter 2019 with heightened expectations after their strong finish.