Going into Thursday night’s season finale against Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls knew it was already a lock for the playoffs. The Colonels (6-4, 6-0 Southland) wrapped up the Southland title last week but still wanted to close out the regular season slate strong against “River Bell Classic” rival SLU. The Lions, though, didn’t let Nicholls ride into the postseason without a fight.
It was the Lions who drew first blood. After forcing an opening three and out, Southeastern Louisiana put together a scoring drive on their first possession. Quarterback Zachary Clement used his legs and his arm to march the Lions down into the red zone. The Colonels got a key stop on third down but SLU dug into the bag of tricks. On an apparent field goal attempt, defensive back lined up to hold the snap. He tucked the ball on a fake and scampered in for a six-yard score.
Trailing 7-0, Nicholls was unable to find any traction for much of the first quarter. It wasn’t until the third series of the night that they finally got in scoring position. Aided by a pass interference flag on SLU defensive back Kunta Hester, the Colonels offense was able to get inside the Lions 5-yard line. Quarterback Pat McQuaide ran in from three yards out to draw the score even early in the second.
The momentum was beginning to sway and Southeastern Louisiana was unable to stop it. Their offense, which was humming on the first drive, had gone cold. The Nicholls defense forced a quick punt and gave the ball back to their own offense.
McQuaide and company kept their rhythm and scoured 91 yards in just four plays. After short runs from both Jaylon Spears and Collin Guggenheim, McQuaide slung a pass to David Robinson Jr. over the middle. Robinson danced his way up the sideline then cut it back through the SLU defense for a 78-yard touchdown catch and run. In emphatic fashion, Nicholls took their first lead of the evening.
Despite leading, the ill will of the rivalry was starting to flare up for Nicholls. On the next drive, DB Tyler Morton struck Rodeo Graham Jr. late out of bounds and was called for targeting. Morton, who has four interceptions this season, was ejected.
The Lions took advantage of their boosted field position and tacked on three more with a 31-yard Riley Callaghan field goal with 2:53 remaining in the first half.
SLU forced the game’s first turnover shortly after when Spears fumbled near the Lions 40-yard line. Arlen Williams fell on the loose ball. Another personal foul on Nicholls moved Clement and the offense even further up. Callaghan made his second field goal of the night, this one from 26, to cut the deficit to just one going into the break.
Nicholls would recapture its mojo in the third quarter and extend its lead thanks to another long touchdown pass from McQuaide. Spears caught a pass in the flat and sprinted through the SKU defense, breaking free for a 73-yard score. The Colonels were on top 21-13.
SLU, it appeared, was nearing its breaking point. Callaghan missed on a 41-yard field goal midway through the third and Nicholls began driving again on the other side. Just when it seemed all was lost for the Lions, though, the defense stepped up and made another huge play. Sophomore DB Ian Conerly-Goodly jumped a route and intercepted McQuaide.
The turnover set up Callaghan’s third field goal of the night and made it 21-16 heading into the final 15 minutes.
The Lions rode their newfound life to another apparent scoring march early in the fourth quarter. Still unable to find the end zone, Clement took a sack on third down setting up Callaghan for his fifth field goal attempt of the game. The ball, though, bounced off the upright.
As they had done all evening, the Southeastern Louisiana defense did its part to keep Nicholls from running away with it but time was becoming a factor. Senior linebacker Anthony Britton Jr. broke into the backfield and sacked McQuiade for a loss of six yards, setting up another Colonels punt.
Needing a spark offensively, SLU head coach Frank Scelfo sent in backup quarterback Eli Sawyer but ultimately the result was the same. Sawyer was unable to move the offense and again it would be left up to the Lions D to make a stop.
A big false start penalty on fourth and short helped Southeast Louisiana get the stop they needed and with 2:01 to play, the offense got one last chance. Sawyer came in for the final drive but, just as he did before, he took sacks on third and fourth down. Nicholls held on for the 21-16 win.
This marks the fourth year in a row the road team has won the “River Bell Classic”. Nicholls and SLU are now dead even in the series at 17 victories apiece. McQuaide passed for 300 yards and had two touchdowns. Spears led the team in rushing with 58 yards.
Despite forcing two turnovers, the Lions were unable to produce enough on offense to stay with Nicholls. Callaghan made three of his five field goal tries for nine of the Lions’ 16 points. The lone touchdown also came from the special teams unit. Clement finished his night with 98 passing yards and 56 rushing yards.
Nicholls will finish its regular season at 6-4 and a perfect 6-0 record in Southland play. The last time a team won the Southland title with a perfect conference record was Central Arkansas in 2017. The Colonels will almost certainly be playing in the opening round of the playoffs on Thanksgiving weekend although they will have to wait until Sunday to find out their opponent. Southeastern Louisiana's season ends at 3-8, their worst finish since 2011.