HAMMOND -- It sounds strange, but in a way, the Southeastern Louisiana University football team has its loss to Nicholls to thank for helping key the Lions’ playoff win Florida A&M on Saturday.
Against the Colonels, Southeastern surrendered 556 yards of total offense in a 45 42 loss that cost the Lions at least a share of the Southland Conference championship. Nicholls rushed for 292 yards, with Collin Guggenheim putting up 266 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries.
It’s a scenario SLU coach Frank Scelfo and his staff were determined not to repeat heading into their FCS playoff opener against Florida A&M.
“That’s what we talked about all week long,” Scelfo said. “I was disappointed in the Nicholls game because the second quarter, we gave up no points, and in the fourth quarter, we gave up a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, but we played well the rest of the time. In the first and the third, I don’t even know who we were. That was my problem all this week, and that was the message was we’re capable of doing this, now go do it, and if we can’t, I’ve got to go find some guys that can do it, because schematically, we’re in a position to make plays, and we just didn’t make them at times, but then we did. So going into this week, going through the process of this week preparing for Florida A&M, it was a heightened intensity around that side of the ball, and they came out and did it tonight, and they felt good about.”
The Lions more than responded, holding Florida A&M to 98 yards of total offense in the first half as the Rattlers went 2-for-7 on third down and punted five times. Florida A&M ran 11 times for 40 yards in the first half, while quarterback Rasean McKay was 7-for-18 for 58 yards passing.
The Lions, who travel to face No. 3 seed James Madison at 1 p.m. Saturday in the second round of the playoffs, finished with 10 pass break ups, including three from Blayne Delahoussaye.
“It goes back to they tried to run the ball early. They couldn’t do it,” Scelfo said. “They tried to throw it, and we had a couple of PBUs that were really good plays there. We’ve got some guys making plays, and that’s what we’re capable of doing.”
Scelfo said the performance shows the growth of the team’s defense, which has been without All-America defensive back Ferlando Jordan because of an injury for most of the season. The Lions also played against Florida A&M without linebacker Alexis Ramos, who is the team's leading tackler.
“Sometimes younger guys just don’t quite see it as well or as fast, and then as they grow and mature, or as things happen, then it lends itself to more success,” Scelfo said. “Them being able to look at this film tonight because they looked at it last week, and they said, ‘Now we understand we weren’t doing what we needed to do’. Then being able to see that (Saturday), we can get a complete change around there. Looking forward to seeing some growth out of those guys again this week.”
Freshman defensive back Jack Henderson intercepted McKay in the first half, leading to a 9-yard touchdown pass from Cole Kelley to Taron Jones that put the Lions up 21-0.
Henderson has been a big contributor for the Lions after some early struggles.
“Back in the spring, he was just kind of like a deer in the headlights at times, just couldn’t quite figure it out,” Scelfo said of Henderson. “His physical abilities are there, but he just couldn’t quite figure it out. Then things start happening for him. Summer was good. Fall camp was good. Now he’s a starter. Now you see his progression as he grows and gains experience. Now he’s able to do some of the things that you go, ‘Wow! That guy’s a good player. He’s got some experience, and you go, wait, Jack’s still a freshman.’”
Scelfo also pointed out the performances of freshman Zy Alexander, who leads the team with six interceptions, and Delahoussaye, another freshman who started at cornerback Saturday and finished with four tackles.
“It’s pretty cool to watch guys that young doing things like that,” Scelfo said. “It’s just fun to watch. You look toward the future and go, ‘Wow! We’ve got some good stuff going on over here.’ We’ve got some depth. We lose some guys, but we’ve got a lot of guys back, and then here we go. Let’s see where we can go with it.”
Henderson finished with six tackles and a pass break up.
“It’s crazy,” Henderson said. “I just try and keep improving my game. I know a lot of other guys, same thing. I feel like every game, I get a little better. A lot of young guys are actually stepping up right now, so I’m very hopeful for what we have in store.”
FAMU, which finished with 291 yards of total offense, didn’t cross midfield until late in the third quarter with the Lions up 31-0 and got its touchdowns late in the fourth quarter when Southeastern began substituting.
It’s an effort Scelfo is hoping the Lions can build on in the second round of the playoffs.
“What’s rewarding is when they feel it,” Scelfo said. “None of them run to me when they go make a big play now. There’s not one of them that comes over there and says, ‘I did it.’ They run to each other, and when you see them celebrating with each other, that’s the rewarding portion of it because they pull for each other. Most of them probably hate me and don’t want me around them, but they love each other, so when those things take place and you see all that coming together, that’s the best part of it. That’s the rewarding part from a coach’s standpoint to be able to watch your team go through a period of turmoil, up and down adversity and have success and see how they embrace it. That’s what I really liked about the process that we went through this week during practice. Believe me, they were challenged, and then getting the results that we got (Saturday) for such a long period of time.”