HAMMOND – Southeastern football coach Frank Scelfo has preached all season long about his team’s ability to put together 60 minutes worth of effort in games.
The formula didn’t change as the Lions needed almost every second in Saturday’s 45-44 win over Villanova to open the FCS playoffs at Strawberry Stadium, which also helped the Lions bury the memory of a one-point loss to Nicholls State the week before.
“That’s a tough way to lose,” Scelfo said. “We just went through it, right? That’s a tough way to go down, but congratulations to our team. Sixty minutes, man. It’s all 60 minutes in this game, and our guys believed until the end.”
Southeastern twice came back from a 17-point deficit, including 31-14 at halftime. Scelfo said the plan for the second half wasn’t complicated for the Lions, who defeated a top-8 team for the third time this season.
“It was just about getting the ball back and getting another possession – get the ball back, get another possession, and we talked about that at halftime,” Scelfo said. “When I talked to the team, it was stop the run and then score touchdowns, and I said, ‘well you guys, that’s simple isn’t it’. Do that, and we’ll be fine, and that’s kind of what we did in the second half defensively. I thought third quarter, we were lights out defensively, especially stopping the run.”
That formula worked almost flawlessly for the Lions. Villanova rushed for 143 yards on 21 carries in the first half – an average of 6.8 yards a carry – including a 53-yard touchdown run by Wildcat quarterback Daniel Smith as part of a 21-point second quarter.
The Lions forced punts on the first three Villanova drives of the second half and turned each of its possessions into points with quarterback Cole Kelley rushing for a touchdown, Chason Virgil connecting with CJ Turner on a 29-yard touchdown pass and Bryce Broussard kicking a 25-yard field goal to knot the score at 31-31 with 1:29 to go in the third quarter.
Southeastern held Villanova to 42 yards rushing on nine carries in the third quarter while allowing no points, and the Wildcats finished the game with 218 yards rushing on 37 carries.
“Our mentality always has been from the start of the year when (SLU defensive coordinator Lance) Guidry came in … third-quarter shutout,” Southeastern defensive lineman Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund said. “Give our offense a chance no matter what the score is, no matter what’s going on, no matter the situation – third quarter shutout – and that’s what we came out to do.
“We talk about finishing battles and then winning the wars, so we’re going out, we win one battle, we come back to the sidelines,” Berglund continued. “We win another battle, we come back to the sidelines, so that’s what we were doing. We really just came out and we were having fun. Everybody was talking. Everybody was trusting each other. As you guys could tell, it was different. We were a little flustered in the first half, but man, when we make those adjustments and come out in the second half, it’s dangerous.”
The Lions’ defensive adjustments coincided with near-flawless play from Virgil in the second half. Virgil was 13-for-22 for 180 yards and an interception at halftime but finished the game 36-for-49 with a career-high 474 yards while throwing three touchdowns.
“When you coach quarterbacks a long time, when you look at them, you can kind of tell if he’s a dude or not,” Scelfo said. “Well, Chason’s a dude, but there are some times, it doesn’t matter who you are, there’s some times it’s like they’re confused, and they’re having a tough time. Villanova gave us a lot of junk (Saturday), especially from a coverage standpoint. Chason’s eyes and his demeanor and the way he was carrying himself – especially in the second half – I thought the first half was good, but the second half – Wow! He was just on everything. He was locked in. Very few missed reads.”
Touchdown passes from Smith to Todd Summers and Virgil to Javon Conner knotted the score at 38-38, and Villanova claimed a 44-38 lead when Smith hit Changa Hodge on a 50-yard touchdown pass.
“That’s a good football team, which they’re going to do that, but we felt like if we could limit those, then we’d have a chance at the end, and that’s what happened,” Scelfo said of the big plays.”
The difference there was a missed PAT from Villanova’s Drew Kresge, which enabled the Lions to move to the Villanova 8, where on fourth-and-7, Virgil hit Turner for the tying touchdown with 2:56 to play.
Scelfo said there wasn’t any doubt the Lions were going for the touchdown on fourth down.
“You’ve got to remember we had all three timeouts left, so we’ve been playing well defensively,” Scelfo said. “We’re going to get all four downs. We’re going to take a shot at the end zone. If not, they’ll get the ball and we’re going to burn all three timeouts, force a punt, and we’ve got a short field and we’ll go down there and score.”
The difference in the final score came on Broussard’s PAT. He went 6-for-6 on PATs after missing one against Nicholls.
“I’m happy for Bryce,” Virgil said. “I love him. He’s a teammate. A lot of people were probably down on him last week, but Bryce has been doing that. We see that at practice, so we think highly of Bryce and we know that he can do that and we trust him. It’s not a big thing, but it’s just Bryce being Bryce. That’s what he does.”
Smith hit Jaaron Hayek on a 40-yard touchdown with 1:31 to play, but it was wiped out by an offensive pass interference call on Hayek, moving the ball back to the Villanova 45.
The Wildcats moved to the Lion 39, where Smith overthrew Hayek on fourth down, turning the ball over on downs with 48 seconds to play.
“This hurts,” Smith said. “As soon as the ball hit the ground, you know it hurts because you kind of feel everything kind of shatter in your chest. For the seniors, for all the time you’ve put with all these guys throughout the offseason and through camp, you’re just heartbroken for all the guys you won’t ever do this again with.”
It’s the opposite for the Lions, who are in the FCS quarterfinals for the first time since 2013 and travel to face No. 6 Montana.
“They weren’t scared of losing,” Scelfo said of his team. “They had faith they could win, and that’s what the big thing was for them and coming out in the second half, that’s what we did.”