Demons struggle in red zone, fall to Nicholls St.

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NATCHITOCHES -- The Northwestern State offense didn’t have problems entering Nicholls territory Saturday, but the Demons struggled to maximize those opportunities in a 28-10 loss to No. 12 Nicholls in Turpin Stadium.

NSU (2-3, 1-2 Southland Conference) cobbled 10 points on eight drives on the Colonels’ side of the field.

Demons coach Brad Laird said turning those chances into points, especially after scoring just twice in six red zone chances at Southeastern this past week, will be a focal point going forward.

“We’re playing hard, but we’ve got to take advantage of our opportunities – that’s the biggest thing right now,” Laird said. “We had chances in the first half, and we even had some chances after Nicholls scored on the first drive of the second half.

“We had (three turnovers), which was an area in which we’ve done well in the past. We’ve moved the ball, we just have to convert in the red zone.”

The Colonels capitalized on more scarce chances, finishing two long drives with touchdowns to end the first half before scoring on a 55-yard drive to open the second half to lead 21-10. Nicholls’ first-half touchdowns covered 80 and 87 yards, respectively.

Nicholls did most of its damage on the ground, gaining 299 yards on 55 carries. The Colonels used that ground advantage to chew up the clock, owning an 11-minute edge in time of possession that limited NSU’s chances, especially in the second half.

The Demons defense held quarterback Chase Fourcade, Nicholls’ second-leading career passer, to just 118 passing yards, but its 299 rushing yards allowed is the most against FCS opponent this season.

“I thought our defense played pretty well, and it put our offense back on the field in some good field position,” Laird said. “We’ve competed well against a nationally ranked team that was picked second in the preseason, so I think that says something about our program.

“We just have to be more consistent on and off the field.”

With NSU clinging to hope in the fourth quarter, defensive end Zak Krolczyk blocked a field goal in an attempt to spark the Demons.

But the Nicholls defense didn’t allow NSU to get back on track, forcing a Shelton Eppler fumble and one of his two interceptions on NSU’s final two drives.

Nicholls added a late score on a Julien Gums 2-yard run to push its edge to 28-10.

Junior defensive end O’Shea Jackson totaled 10 tackles with 3.5 for loss to spearhead the Demons defense.

“We’ve got to keep it going and move forward,” Jackson said. “We just can’t give up.”

After traversing the field in the first half to the tune of 196 yards, NSU gained just 125 second-half yards. Thirty-nine yards came on an Eppler pass to Jaylen Watson, but Nicholls forced an Eppler fumble on the next play to extinguish NSU’s final gasp.

Eppler threw for 218 yards on 16-of-27 passing with two interceptions. Quan Shorts (5-51), Jaylen Watson (4-72) and Jazz Ferguson (2-54) all topped 50 yards.

Senior Clay Holgorsen entered the game late in the third quarter and threw for 41 yards on 3-of-9 passing.

“We’re trying to create a spark offensively by bringing in Holgorsen,” Laird said. “We thought it would benefit Eppler by seeing the game from a different angle and a different perspective.”

NSU started with a bang as a Myles Ward 58-yard kickoff return and a 27-yard Jared West run set up a 28-yard Austyn Fendrick field goal on NSU’s opening possession.

But Fendrick missed a 40-yard attempt on the next drive before an Eppler interception in the end zone ended NSU’s red zone chances.

After a 5-yard Fourcade touchdown pass to Dai’Jean Dixon handed Nicholls a 7-3 edge, NSU responded with a 12-yard Stadford Anderson touchdown run to regain the lead 10-7 early in the second quarter.

Catches by Jared West (24 yards) and Shorts (21 yards) aided the drive.

But a Fourcade 3-yard scoring run capped Nicholls’ second scoring drive of at least 80 yards for the 14-10 halftime edge.

Nicholls’ Dontrel Taylor led the rushing attack with 103 rushing yards accompanied by three other rushers with at least 49 yards.

NSU will play its second consecutive ranked opponent in Turpin Stadium when it hosts Sam Houston State this coming Saturday.

The Bearkats entered this week No. 16 before a 54-21 win against Stephen F. Austin.