THIBODAUX, LA - Southeastern Louisiana weathered a late Nicholls rally to give the Lions a dramatic 44-42 River Bell Classic victory over the Colonels in the 2016 regular season finale for both teams Thursday night in John L. Guidry Stadium.
Nicholls quarterback Chase Fourcade's Hail Mary attempt was knocked away by Lion junior Javon Tillman on the game's final play to help Southeastern (7-4, 7-2 Southland) reclaim the River Bell and even the all-time series at 13-13. The Colonels (5-6, 5-4 Southland) were unable to overcome a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit, as the Lions secured sole possession of third place in the Southland Conference, which features the No. 1 and No. 11 teams in the most recent FCS national polls.
The victory allowed Southeastern to remain in the discussion for a FCS playoff berth, as the 24-team playoff field will be announced on Sunday at 10 a.m. on ESPNU. The selection committee will have to judge if the Lions' resume of seven Division I wins, five games versus nationally-ranked teams (including one FBS) and a finish of six victories in their final seven games is good enough for the program's third postseason berth in the past four seasons.
"This was exactly what you'd expect from a great rivalry game," Southeastern head coach Ron Roberts said. "It was back and forth and one of the most exciting games I've been a part of in a long time.
"Give Nicholls credit for never giving up and making it such a tight finish," Roberts continued. "We had some key guys go down to injuries today and we were very proud of our guys having a next-man up mentality and getting the job done."
Southeastern jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, before Nicholls answered with 21 unanswered points to take a 21-14 halftime lead. SLU turned the tables after halftime, outscoring Nicholls, 30-7, over the first 25 minutes of the second half, taking a seemingly insurmountable 44-28 lead with just over five minutes remaining.
However with the aid of two quick scoring drives and a pair of onside kick recoveries, Nicholls nearly broke the Lions' hearts. The Colonels came all the way back to make it 44-42 before Southeastern junior Torrance Mosley knocked away a Fourcade two-point attempt. After the second onside kick recovery, Tillman batted away Fourcade's last ditch-effort to secure the dramatic win.
Roberts' next-man up philosophy was embodied by senior quarterback D'Shaie Landor, who came in for injured starting senior quarterback Justin Alo to start the second half. The Lafayette, Louisiana native responded with arguably the best half of football in his three years in Hammond. Landor threw for 151 yards and two touchdowns to help Southeastern dominate the second half.
For the third straight game, sophomore Julius Maracalin carried the rushing burden for the Lions and topped the 100-yard plateau. The Plaquemine, Louisiana native carried 24 times for 130 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.
Landor and Alo's top targets were junior Juwan Dickey (three catches, 67 yards, 1 TD) and senior Juwaan Rogers (2-49). Freshman Javon Conner also caught his first career touchdown pass for SLU.
On defense, Southeastern finished with three interceptions of Fourcade, who completed 17-of-40 passes for 255 yards and three touchdowns. Junior Max Lyons, junior Demarayeh Lane and freshman Jacorey Fuller all had picks of the Nicholls freshman signal caller.
Making the first start of his Southeastern career, junior linebacker Jake Jiannoni led the Lions with 11 tackles, while Tillman chipped in with 10 stops. Jiannoni also had two tackles for loss, while senior Anthony Murphy Jr. recorded the Lions' lone sack.
Nicholls was able rack up 577 yards of total offense, as Dontrell Taylor led the Colonels with 169 yards rushing. Bates was Fourcade's most productive option, catching four passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns.
Nicholls mounted the first threat of the game on its opening drive. Kyran Irvin broke off a 31-yard run to advance the Colonels into the Lion red zone. However, the SLU defense stiffened and NSU kicker David McKey hooked a 34-yard field goal wide left to keep the game scoreless.
Southeastern got on the board on its third drive of the game. Maracalin powered in from two yards out to cap a nine-play, 65-yard scoring drive and give Southeastern a 7-0 lead with 2:28 left in the opening quarter.
On the next play from scrimmage, Lyons intercepted Fourcade and returned the ball 26 yards to the Colonel nine-yard line. On the following play, Alo raced around right end for his first rushing touchdown of the season and a 14-0 lead with 1:58 left in the opening period.
Nicholls answered with a 12-play, 65-yard scoring march that carried the game into the second quarter. Bates pulled in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Fourcade to cut the Lion lead to 14-7 with 11:45 left in the opening half.
After a SLU three-and-out, the Colonels tied it up quickly. A 67-yard run by Taylor set up NSU at the Lion one-yard line. On the next play, Fourcade scored from a yard out to tie the score at 14-14 with 10:03 left in the second quarter.
Southeastern punted on its next drive and Nicholls moved into Lion territory, looking poised to take its first lead. However, SLU forced the Colonels into a field goal attempt and McKey missed a 39-yard try to keep the score tied.
On the next drive, Corey Abraham intercepted Alo at the Lion 31-yard line. Two plays later, Taylor raced in from 29 yards out to take a 21-14 lead with 5:24 left in the first half.
The deficit would remain seven at the half, though the Colonels outgained Southeastern, 215-42, in the 21-0 second quarter.
Nicholls moved into SLU territory on the first drive of the third quarter. However, the lead remained at seven after McKey pushed a 32-yard field goal wide right.
After a Southeastern three-and-out, Lane stepped in front of a Fourcade pass and returned it 37 yards to the Nicholls 10-yard line. Three plays later, Conner made a diving grab of a nine-yard Landor pass for his first collegiate touchdown. However, sophomore Jonathan Tatum missed the extra point and Nicholls maintained a 21-20 advantage with 8:59 left in the third quarter.
After the Lions forced another stop, Southeastern took the lead with an eight-play, 90-yard scoring march. A 29-yard scamper by Landor highlighted the drive, which Maracalin capped with a 21-yard run that saw him break several Colonel tackles. The Plaquemine, Louisiana native's second touchdown run of the game gave SLU a 27-21 advantage with 3:01 left in the third quarter.
After forcing another Nicholls three-and-out, Southeastern extended its lead on the opening drive of the third quarter. Rogers took a short Landor pass, hurdled a Colonel defender and raced 37 yards to highlight a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Maracalin scored from 10 yards out to give the Lions a 34-21 lead with 13:17 left in the contest.
Nicholls answered less than a minute later, as Fourcade took a deep shot and found Bates for a 57-yard touchdown pass to cut the Southeastern lead to 34-28 with 12:20 remaining.
Southeastern came up with an answer of its own. Facing a fourth-and-inches at their own 47-yard line, the Lions went for it and Maracalin busted through the line for a five-yard gain to keep the drive alive. On the next play of the drive, Landor found Dickey for a 48-yard touchdown and a 41-28 lead with 9:51 left in the game.
The Lions forced another Colonels' three-and-out, then junior Torrance Mosley broke off a 24-yard punt return to set SLU up in Nicholls territory. Eight plays later, junior Dillon Burkhard knocked in a 22-yard field goal to give Southeastern a 44-28 advantage with just over five minutes left.
Any chance of a Colonel comeback seemingly ended on the next possession. Fuller took a Fourcade pass away from Jarrell Rogers for his second interception of the season to give the Lions the ball back with under five minutes remaining. Southeastern was able to take another minute off the clock before freshman Ivy Wall punted the ball back to the Colonels.
Nicholls marched the ball down to cut the Lion advantage to one score in the final minutes. Damion Jeanpiere grabbed a five-yard scoring pass from Fourcade, then Bates made a leaping catch on the two-point conversion to make it 44-36 with 1:18 remaining.
On the ensuing onside kick, junior Jonathan Lyles mishandled McKey's kick and Nicholls' Jeff Hall fell on the loose ball at the NSU 43-yard line. Nicholls would go on a six-play, 57-yard scoring drive that culminated with a Fourcade two-yard scoring run with four seconds left. However, Mosley knocked away Fourcade's two-point pass to keep the Lions with a slim 44-42 lead.
Remarkably, Tillman mishandled the onside kick on the next possession to give Nicholls one last try and a Rogers personal foul set the Nicholls up at the Lion 37-yard line with two seconds left after Darryl Adams' recovery. However, Tillman batted down Fourcade's last Hail Mary try to return the River Bell back to Hammond.