- Ronald Oswalt
HAMMOND, La. – The No. 23/23 Nicholls State University football team won its second consecutive Southland Conference championship after a chaotic, thrilling 28-27 victory over No. 22/21 Southeastern Louisiana in the River Bell Classic Thursday night in front of 10,071 fans at Strawberry Stadium.
The Colonels (8-4, 7-2 SLC) regained the lead with 1:30 remaining when Chase Fourcade found a streaking Dai’Jean Dixon down the sideline for a 57-yard touchdown catch, and the extra point by Gavin Lasseigne put Nicholls up 28-27. Southeastern (7-4, 6-3 SLC) drove inside the 2 before Kevin Moore III knocked the ball away from Lion quarterback Cole Kelley trying to stretch into the end zone, and Sully Laiche recovered for the Colonels.
Nicholls was able to run out the final 15 seconds to secure its second-straight title and the Southland’s automatic qualifier into the FCS playoffs. It marks the third consecutive postseason for the Colonels and third year with at least eight wins – both firsts in school history.
Dixon set a new career-high in receiving in his third-straight appearance, going for 190 and three touchdowns on nine receptions. The junior receiver had 185 last weekend in the win over McNeese and in doing so, became just the fifth player in team history to surpass 2,000 yards receiving in a career.
Fourcade finished with 288 yards and helped Nicholls rally from an early 14-0 deficit by throwing a pair of touchdown passes to Dixon in the second quarter. The first went for 48 yards with Dixon shaking a tackler and out-running the rest of the secondary for the score. The second was from 2-yards out as Dixon went over the top of the defender in the corner of the end zone.
Sophomore Julien Gums continued his stellar campaign, rushing for 133 yards on 18 carries. His 5-yard touchdown run before the end of the third gave Nicholls its first lead of the night at 21-14.
In the fourth, Southeastern tied it up when Devonte Williams rushed in from four yards out for his third touchdown of the evening. Williams scored on a 2-yard pass from Kelley to cap the Lions’ first possession of the game, then had a 61-yard punt return to close out the first quarter.
With five minutes remaining in the game, Nicholls moved the ball to midfield after a 15-yard catch by Dixon, but three plays later, the Lions’ Dominic Lamm snagged a Fourcade pass and returned it 19 yards to the Colonel 29 with 3:07 on the clock.
Southeastern quickly scored when Chason Virgil hit Austin Mitchell for a 17-yard touchdown on the third play, but Bryce Broussard missed the extra point, keeping the score at 27-21.
Nicholls started its game-winning drive at the 2:15 mark. Fourcade found K.J. Franklin open for a 9-yard reception, then zipped a pass to Dixon for a 12-yard gain. The next play, Dixon was left in single coverage and after hauling it in at the 13, waltz into the end zone for his third TD of the night. Lasseigne, who was 4-for-4 in extra points, put Nicholls ahead.
But Southeastern did not go away quietly after a squib kick gave the Lions great field position at their own 44. Virgil completed a big fourth-down pass after scrambling around and finding Mitchell for a sliding 9-yard catch, then a roughing the passer added 15 yards to the play. A pass interference moved the ball to the 2 and following a stop by Khristian Mims on 1st-and-goal, the Colonel defense came up with the game-ending turnover.
In addition to the forced fumble to win the game, Moore led the way 11 tackles. Laryon James added eight and a sack, while Mims finished with seven stops. Laiche saw his sack streak come to an end at four games but had four tackles with one behind the line of scrimmage and the final fumble recovery.
Nicholls edged SLU in total yards, 468-460. Dontrell Taylor added 44 yards on the ground to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark for his career, and Dion Ray chipped in with 73 yards receiving on four grabs. For SLU, Virgil threw for 321 yards and a score, and had a pass picked off in the third quarter by Colonel linebacker Giovanni LaFrance.
Nicholls will find out its opponent for the first round of the FCS playoffs on Sunday via the 2019 FCS Playoff Selection Show at 11:30 a.m. central on ESPNU.