The lasting impression for the Nicholls State football team with its uniforms on were quarterback Chase Fourcade and defensive tackle Sully Laiche trying to hold their emotions in check while discussing the rise of Colonels football. When they started their careers, the program was a laughing stock of FCS football.
Fourcade and Laiche are what head coach Tim Rebowe called the “face of the program” during the post-game press conference Saturday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. Moreover, they were two of 18 juniors or seniors who were starters in the second round NCAA Division I FCS playoff game against North Dakota State.
It’s a man’s game, this playoff football. Nicholls brought it for just over two quarters before faltering in the second half in the 37-13 Bison victory, which gives NDSU a date in next weekend’s quarterfinals against Illinois State.
There were noticeable young-kid moments for the Bison in the first half, like redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance misfiring on a couple of passes that are usually automatic. All over the field, NDSU had freshmen and sophomores getting their first real taste of postseason.
Even the head coach joked about it himself. It was Matt Entz’s first playoff victory.
“I was worried about me having a playoff game under my belt,” Entz said. “Excited. We’ve had some flu going around, always little things you have to deal with going into a playoff. Our kids continue to stay locked in and be focused.”
Nicholls was no slouch, mainly because Rebowe brought them in as freshmen and worked on them.
“The way their kids play, it’s a program probably a lot like ours,” Entz said. “The kids are developed, they grow up from being freshmen and work their way through it. That’s why they play so hard so I have nothing but praise for them.”
With all of NDSU’s youth, however, it was a seasoned sophomore in strong safety Michael Tutsie and a veteran leader in senior free safety James Hendricks who turned the tide. With NDSU holding a 14-13 lead early in the second half, Tutsie picked off Fourcade and returned it 25 yards to the Nicholls 31-yard line.
It led to a Will Cardinal field goal and a 17-13 lead.
Hendricks’ play was probably the killer.
Entz said both interceptions came from defensive coordinator David Braun putting NDSU into a “split safety” coverage. There’s no need to try and explain the details, but know this: It’s doubtful Fourcade was expecting it because the Bison rarely used that particular look this season.
“It was single coverage and I thought he beat the corner,” Fourcade said of his receiver. “He made a good play over the top. I thought I could just beam it in there right away, but he came from the other hash and ran it down.”
The reason Hendricks made the play was Nicholls receiver Dai’Jean Dixon and the Colonels’ habit of targeting him. Who wouldn’t? He’s 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds who won a 50-50 ball in the second quarter for the Colonels’ only touchdown.
Entz said NDSU cornerbacks Marquise Bridges and Josh Hayes, albeit two of the best in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, were having trouble matching up to Dixon. So NDSU had to game plan something else.
That’s where Hendricks came in.
I don’t know how to measure football IQ, but Hendricks has to be up there with some of the best in the country. With Nicholls facing third-and-3 at their own 40-yard line, Fourcade went back to pass looking for Dixon down the right sideline.
His high pass was snatched by a closing Hendricks, who wasn’t satisfied with just picking it off. He turned into option quarterback mode (he was recruited to NDSU as a quarterback) and weaved his way for a 48-yard return to the Nicholls’ 13-yard line.
Lance hit tight end Noah Gindorff for a 3-yard touchdown and the Bison led 24-13, huge in that it was the first two-possession advantage for the Bison.
“That’s just North Dakota State football right there,” Fourcade said. “They respond quick on turnovers like that and going in we knew we couldn’t turn the ball over, especially in a crowd like this. We just didn’t get the job done.”
Hendricks said it was the third time he was expected to give help on Dixon, but he was late to the party the first two times. That included the touchdown pass.
“I didn’t get there on either of them,” Hendricks said. “It was all the same play and I was too slow on them, so I just told myself that if I get another chance I’m going to be there and luckily they did it again.”
So the Bison move on to face Illinois State, which will bring another man to the table in running back James Robinson.
Playoff football; it’s not for the meek.
“They gave us a heck of a time today,” Entz said of Nicholls State.