NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Tulane appeared to have overcame a jittery start to its first bowl game in 11 years, only to be stunned by a cruel ending to kicker Cairo Santos' otherwise distinguished college career
Orleans Darkwa scored three touchdowns as the Green Wave rallied from a 21-0 deficit, but Santos' 48-yard field goal try in the final seconds missed wide left, and Tulane fell 24-21 to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday night.
Santos was the 2012 Lou Groza award winner as the nation's best college kicker, and he'd made a couple of game-winning kicks this season to help Tulane to its first bowl since 2002.
''Cairo's made those before,'' Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. ''It just didn't fall for him this time.''
The game might not have come down to that kick if Tulane hadn't hurt itself with turnovers, penalties and rough first quarter-and-a-half in which Johnson said his team appeared too emotional to function as well as usual.
''It was uncharacteristic of us,'' Johnson said. ''Then all of a sudden we settled down and for three quarters of the game, from the second quarter on, we played pretty well. ... A great comeback. We'll get it next year.''
Louisiana-Lafayette's Corey Trim intercepted Nick Montana and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown, and Sean Thomas' second interception set up Hunter Stover's go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter.
Those were plays the Ragin' Cajuns needed with their quarterback, Terrance Broadway, playing with a cast on his broken right forearm.
''We preached turnovers,'' Thomas said. ''Going into the game, we knew we had to help our offense out a lot.''
Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris each had touchdowns runs for the Ragin' Cajuns (9-4). Broadway passed for 143 yards and ran for 33, but was intercepted twice, sacked four times and took a lot of hits in the second half before being replaced by Jalen Nixon in the fourth quarter.
Devin Powell replaced Montana in the first half and passed for 223 yards for Tulane (7-6), but his underthrown pass that Thomas picked off was costly. Tulane's Ryan Grant had seven catches for 113 yards. Darkwa finished with 86 yards rushing and was named the game's most valuable player, the first time a losing player received that distinction in a New Orleans Bowl.
''The MVP is fine, but I wanted the win like everybody else did,'' the senior running back said.
It wasn't clear until kickoff who was going to play quarterback for either team. ULL coach Mark Hudspeth had all but ruled out Broadway, who broke his throwing arm Nov. 30. Johnson said he was unsure if he could start Montana, who'd struggled much of the season with injuries, including to his throwing shoulder.
Both quarterbacks ended up starting, but only Broadway took the majority of his team's snaps.
''We felt like he was ready enough,'' Hudspeth said. ''Sure enough, he was. He made some outstanding plays tonight. His health kept him from doing what he'd normally like to do at times, but man, what a competitor and what a leader.''
Nixon's play was crucial on ULL's final offensive series, in which the Cajuns drove from their own 9 to midfield, eating up 5:45 before Tulane got the ball back on its own 5 with 1:35 left.
Powell completed passes of 34 yards to Justin Shackleford and 27 yards to Grant to move the Green Wave into tying field goal range.
The Ragin' Cajuns needed six plays to produce the game's opening score. McGuire capped the drive with a 27-yard run in which he reached for the pylon as he was knocked out of bounds.
Tulane's first turnover came on a trick play in which Grant took a reverse handoff and threw deep. Thomas intercepted it and returned it to the ULL 27, setting up a six-play, 73-yard scoring drive that ended with Harris' 15-yard scoring run.
The Wave was in position to halve its deficit when Montana drove Tulane inside the ULL 20. But Trim's interception made it 21-0 instead.
After that, Tulane was desperate for points, and converted on fourth-and-3 from its own 47 on Powell's 42-yard completion to Devon Breaux, setting up Darkwa's first TD.
Jordan Sullen's interception at the Tulane 35 set up the Green Wave's second scoring drive, which began with Powell's 49-yard pass to Grant. That led to Darwka's second score on a 7-yard run up the middle shortly before halftime.
Darkwa's tying touchdown came on a 22-yard run shortly after Derrick Strozier intercepted Broadway's attempted throw-away along the sideline.
Sullen was later knocked out by a knee to the head and carted off the field, but Johnson said he was expected to be fine.