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Sunday, July 21, 2019

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Colonels drop nail-biter in River Bell Classic, 21-17, playoff chances uncertain

Colonels drop nail-biter in River Bell Classic, 21-17, playoff chances uncertain

HAMMOND, La. — For the third straight year, the River Bell Classic came down to the final play, but like last year, the No. 17/25 Nicholls State University football team was on the short end as the Colonels dropped a 21-17 decision Thursday night at Strawberry Stadium.

Nicholls led 17-7 early in the third quarter before Southeastern Louisiana (6-5, 6-3 SLC) used its potent rushing attack to score two unanswered touchdowns.

The Colonels had one last chance after getting the ball back with 33 seconds left in the game, but a Hail Mary from the SLU 37 was intercepted in the end zone on the final play.

With the loss, Nicholls dropped to 8-3 overall, 7-2 in the Southland and is eliminated from contention for the Southland Conference regular season championship. The setback also slimmed the Colonels' chances of earning their first playoff berth since 2005.

Nicholls totaled 323 yards of offense with 229 on the ground, despite playing without the Southland's leading rusher, Kyran Irvin. But the Colonels were shut down in the second half, scoring only an early field goal in the third quarter.

Tahj Smith followed up his career game last week with 84 yards on 13 carries, and Dontrell Taylor added 74 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. Taylor put Nicholls on the board for a 7-0 lead on a 7-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.

The defense held SLU to 95 yards in the first half, but a big run by Marcus Cooper went for 67 yards to even the game at 7-7. For the night, Nicholls totaled 11 tackles for loss, led by Terrell Encalade with three. Ahmani Martin made several big stops for the Colonels, finishing with a team-high nine tackles.

Early in the second, the Colonels put together a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive to regain the lead. Nicholls ran the ball eight times, but it was 15-yard receptions by Jarrell Rodgers and Damion Jeanpiere Jr. that fueled the possession. Rogers started the drive with his catch and Jeanpiere's put Nicholls at the SLU 14. Three plays later, Nicholls ran an end around for Jeanpiere and he scored from 7 yards out to double the lead.

In the third, the Colonels caught a break on a bad snap by SLU on a punt. Lion punter Ivy Wall then took off with the ball before Moroni Pointer tackled him at the SLU 26 for an 11-yard loss. The Colonels picked up a first down, but settled for a 22-yard field goal from Lorran Fonseca for a 17-7 advantage.

The explosive Lion rushing game then took over, leading to a pair of touchdowns to close out the quarter. A 54-yard rush by Cooper on the first play of the drive set up a 5-yard touchdown catch for Bransen Schwebel. On the next possession, Juwan Petit-Frere broke free for an 85-yard touchdown run to give SLU a 21-17 lead.

For the final quarter, the Lions picked off Chase Fourcade twice to keep Nicholls from marching down the field. After the first interception, the Colonels nearly caught a break on a punt with four minutes remaining when Wesley Barnett jarred the ball loose as he hit returner Max Lyons, but after initially signaling that Nicholls recovered it, the officials changed the call, giving possession to SLU.

The second interception ended another drive for Nicholls with 1:39 remaining, but the defense held Southeastern to a three-and-out as the Colonels took over at their own 25 with 33 seconds left. Fourcade scrambled three times for 8, 12 and 18 yards, setting up a final play with 4 ticks on the clock.

Like in last season's 44-42 loss, Fourcade heaved a pass into the end zone, but Lyons came down with the ball for SLU to keep the River Bell in Hammond for the second straight year.

The Lions finished with 267 yards on the ground, with most of it coming in the second half after Byron Walker subbed in for injured quarterback Lorenzo Nunez. Cooper totaled 142 yards on the ground on just 11 carries.

The eight wins is the second-most for a single-season for the Colonels in program history. Seven Southland victories is also a new record for the Red and Gray, who joined the league in 1991.