THIBODAUX – The Northwestern State Demons were bedeviled on third down Saturday as the Nicholls Colonels roared to a big halftime lead and held off the visitors 33-21 in the Southland Conference football opener for both teams.
Nicholls (4-2) won its third straight, and snapped a two-game skid in the series with Northwestern (3-3), by dominating play on third down. Offensively, the Colonels’ overall 65 percent (13-20) rate included converting 7 of their first 8 third downs while going up 27-0, and 11 of 15 as the lead moved to 33-7 late in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the Demons, who were getting 39 percent of their third downs offensively entering the day, went three-and-out on four of their first five possessions as Nicholls took command.
“When you don’t win third downs, it’s likely to be a long afternoon. We didn’t play good third down defense. We won first down, we won second down, but we did not do the job at all on third down,” said Demons’ coach Jay Thomas, “and we didn’t move the ball after the fumble.”
The Demons’ opening drive foreshadowed Northwestern’s frustrating afternoon. After Nicholls opened with a 13-play, 75-yard march for its first touchdown, the visitors were on the way to responding when Rob Walker picked up a third-and-2 as he sliced 10 yards to the Colonels 35, but lost the ball at the end of the run.
“I thought he was down,” said Thomas, “but that’s the way it is.”
That was it for the Demons’ offense for quite a while. After picking up 42 yards on its first eight snaps, Northwestern got only nine more on the next 12 plays while punting four times. Before NSU opened the second half with Daniel Taylor’s 57-yard explosion down near the Nicholls goalline, and Garrett Atzenweiler bolted across from three yards away on the next snap, the Demons looked like federal government employees have lately.
That flurry to within 27-7 was more frustrating as Nicholls fumbled on each of its next two series, only to recover both, while producing clock-draining drives of 12 and nine plays that ended with a missed field goal and the career-best third TD of the game by fullback Marcus Washington (touchdown runs from 2, 1 and 4 yards).
Down 33-7, the Demons found mild success in the fourth quarter. Leroy Armstrong’s fumble recovery on the opening play at the Colonels’ 15 led to Taylor’s 10-yard scoring scamper on second down. Northwestern salvaged a glimmer of hope with its only successful sustained series, a 10-snap, 80-yarder over 2:32 capped by Zach Adkins’ 1-yard sneak with 4:18 remaining to draw within 12 points.
The Colonels essentially salted away the outcome appropriately, with a 14-yard play-action pass on third-and-3 from their own 32 as the clock wound under three minutes remaining.
“I don’t know whether it was the humidity, that we haven’t dealt with in a good while now, or what, but we weren’t in gear,” said Thomas.
“We’ve got to get better, and there’s a lot we can get better at. Although you have to give Nicholls credit for playing so well, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
The Demons didn’t appear to have returned from their off week in the first half, unable to sustain any offense or to contain the Colonels.
Nicholls had two methodical scoring drives, of 13 and 15 plays, and took command with two touchdowns within two minutes late in the first half. Northwestern managed only three first downs , was 1 of 6 on third down, and produced only 79 yards on just 23 snaps. Nicholls ran 43 plays and piled up 241 yards, 174 passing with 10 of 16 aim.
It was a bitter homecoming for Thomas, who was on the Nicholls staff for 14 seasons, including six (2004-09) as head coach. But while surrounded by adoring well-wishers from those years following the game, he sounded more determined than disappointed.
“We have some guys who are doing things differently in games than they do during the week, and we’ve got to get to the bottom of why that happens, and fix it,” he said. “We’ve got good players and we can be a good team. Three times this year already, we have been.
“We have six conference games left, and four are at home. The schedule works in our favor. It’s the Southland Conference and surprise is always right around the corner. Hopefully we can be on the other side of the surprise next time.”
The Demons play three of their next four in Turpin Stadium, starting next Saturday night when Southeastern Louisiana visits for a 6 p.m. contest.