HAMMOND -- The Southeastern Louisiana University defense took advantage of its second chance.
After Nicholls ran roughshod over Southeastern in the regular season finale, the No. 17 Lions held No. 22 Florida A&M to 291 yards of total offense, helping spark a 38-14 win in the opening round of the FCS playoffs Saturday at Strawberry Stadium.
“They (Florida A&M) did a heck of a job coming in here,” Southeasetrn coach Frank Scelfo said. “They had a good game plan, but I just think our guys played more physical and a lot harder on defense, especially up front in our front seven, and then our secondary made plays when they had a chance to make some plays, and that was kind of like the key for us keeping the goose egg on the scoreboard.
“Offensively, (it’s) because we had some opportunities,” Scelfo continued. “It’s not disappointing because we played a really good football team, and we knew they were good on defense. But we had opportunities. When you have opportunities. When you get down there and you have a chance to score, you’ve got to score touchdowns. In close games, you lose those games.”
Southeastern (9-3) travels to face No. 3 James Madison (10-1) at 1 p.m. next Saturday.
“There’s 16 teams left, and everybody’s playing at a high level and everybody’s good and there is no room for mistakes,” Scelfo said. “We got away with some stuff tonight on offense. We can’t do that. We won’t be able to get away with it any more in the future.”
Still, the Lions racked up 503 yards of total offense on 93 plays, building a 24-0 lead at halftime, while shifting the momentum quickly on their opening drive of the game.
After forcing a FAMU punt to open the game, the Lions took over at their own 32, putting together a drive that was aided by a pass interference and offside call against the Rattlers, moving the ball to the FAMU 40.
A 10-yard pass from Kelley to Anthony Spurlock moved the ball to the Rattler 24, and on fourth down at the FAMU 21, the Lions lined up for a field goal.
On the snap, holder Nick Kovacs rushed through a gaping hole in the FAMU defense for a 21-yard touchdown, helping put the Lions ahead 7- 0.
“(SLU special teams coordinator) Ross (Jenkins) does a great job each week trying to find stuff, and you can’t always find them,” Scelfo said. “You can’t always find them. They’re not always there. You’ve got to be willing to call it. There’s opportunities during the course of a game, and sometimes they come, sometimes they don’t. We had an opportunity right there and called it. I think the design was spot on, but the execution was just as good, so it worked out good.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but it happened just like it had to happen for us to be able to call it and run it, and we executed it and got it done,” Scelfo continued. “It’s a regular play. It’s not a trick play. It’s a regular play that we attacked a certain defense and the way that they play it, and that’s what we did.”
A 56-yard punt back the Lions up to their own 2 to start their next drive, SLU put together a 13-play scoring drive. Cole Kelley went 5-for-6 for 40 yards passing, hitting Nolan Givan on a 6-yard TD pass, putting the Lions up 14-0.
“We’re really confident when we get the ball coming out of our own end zone for some reason,” said Kelley, who went 31-for-45 for 345 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. “We’ve been like that for a while, and that’s a really good thing. Those are really tough things to do. You don’t see many offenses in college football consistently driving 90 something yards. That was one of the good things we took away from tonight, but like coach said, I don’t think we played well enough for our goals. For the defenses we’re about to be facing, we’re going to have to play a lot better. Give credit to FAMU, they have a really good defense, and I thought they played well tonight, but we’ve got to play better moving forward.”
The score was set up by Taron Jones, who had three straight carries for 18 yards. Jones finished with 11 carries for 55 yards and had five catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns as the Lions rushed for 158 yards as a team.
“I love TJ,” Kelley said. “He’s a great player. He doesn’t complain. We throw the ball almost every play, and you never hear anything from him. Tonight, I think they were trying to take away the pass a lot more, and so it opened up the run and TJ thrived. He’s a great player. He’s a great dude. He works his butt off, and I’m really glad to see him have the success he had tonight.”
Jack Henderson intercepted Rasean McKay to end the ensuing FAMU drive, setting the Lions up at the Rattlers’ 41, enabling the Lions to score again. The interception came after an incomplete pass by FAMU quarterback Resean McKay was originally ruled a fumble that was recovered by the Lions and returned deep into Rattlers’ territory
“Read and react, really,” Henderson said of the play. “I had my guy, kind of peeked at the quarterback. I knew it was coming right to me the whole time. It was huge. It was a big momentum shift, and you could feel it. It gave us a lot of confidence from there on out, I feel like.”
The big play was a 30-yard pass from Kelley to Terrell Carter on third and 9, moving the ball to the FAMU 10. Three plays later, Kelley hit Jones on a 9-yard TD pass for a 21-0 lead.
After another FAMU punt, the ensuing SLU possession came up empty when Rengifo missed a 37-yard field goal. SLU forced another punt, and FAMU’s Antwan Collier intercepted Kelley. That drive ended in a 50-yard punt, which pinned the Lions at their own 7.
Kelley went 6-for-8 for 84 yards on the 13-play drive, with the big play coming on a 31-yard pass to Givan. Kelley had a two-yard keeper on fourth and inches at the FAMU 20 to keep the drive going.
It ended on Rengifo’s 21-yard field goal to end the first half for a 24-0 lead at halftime.
At halftime, Florida A&M ran 29 plays for 98 yards, while the Lions had 53 for 341. FAMU was 2- for-11 on third down in the game.
“The main thing was physicality,” Henderson said of the SLU defense’s approach heading into the game. “We really tried to focus on out physcialing those guys up front and trying to get pressure on the quarterback, force him to make some bad throws. Also, the DBs really stepped up tonight. We had a lot of pass breakups.”
Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons shouldered the responsibility of his team’s loss.
“There were a lot of missed opportunities on our part,” Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons said. “Uncharacteristic dropped passes early on. We had some missed assignments in the run game. When you go up against a good team, when you get into playoff football, the discipline level has to be on 10, and we weren’t. Fundamentals is one of our seven F’s, we didn’t play great fundamental football. That starts with me. I’ll have to look at the film and evaluate our week’s preparation and those type things to see kind of where we might have dropped the ball as a coaching staff. We were uncharacteristic on a lot of things.”
The Rattlers held SLU to a yard on its first three plays of the second half but were called for roughing the punter on fourth down. That enabled the Lions to line up to punt again, only this time Givan rushed for seven yards and a first down to the SLU 48 to keep the drive going.
Kelley hit Austin Mitchell for 13 yards on third down, and Jones carried for eight yards and Mitchell two around a substitution penalty against the Rattlers, moving the ball to the FAMU 20.
On third down, Kelley fired to Kovacs, who made a leaping catch in the end zone on a 20-yard TD, pushing the lead to 31-0.
“I thought he ran a great route and made a really tough catch,” Kelley said. “I put the ball where it needed to be. Nick did a good job crossing his face in the end zone. That’s an NFL catch in my opinion. Those you’ve got to have because in the red zone, there’s going to be tight windows and stuff. I put the ball where only he could get it, and he made a great play. Great game for him tonight.”
The Lions stopped the Rattlers on fourth down on their next drive, allowing SLU to take over at its own 49. That drive ended in a missed 40-yard field goal attempt by Rengifo.
Southeastern’s next score came after the Lions got a fourth down stop at their own 41. Four plays later, Kelley hit Jones on a 39-yard touchdown pass, making the score to 38-0
Florida A&M got its first touchdown on a two-play scoring drive with Resean McKay hitting Jah’Marea Sheread on a 40-yard pass, setting up a 23-yard TD pass from McKay to Xavier Smith, cutting the lead to 38-7 with 5:30 to play after the Lions began subbing in younger players.
McKay hit David Manigo on a 2-yard TD pass with 10 seconds to play to cap the scoring.
McKay went 18-for-40 for 238 yards and an interception, while Bishop Bonnett carried nine times for 38 yards to lead the Rattlers on the ground.
“The last two touchdowns, we had a lot of new guys in there, but for the most part, throughout the course of that game …. Our guys played really well,” Scelfo said. “We were on top of some stuff.”