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Stephen F. Austin Football

A Look Ahead: Lumberjacks aim to upset Nicholls in Southland Conference debut

September 20, 2019

NACOGDOCHES, Texas- The SFA Lumberjacks opened the season with enough hype to fill AT&T Stadium, unfortunately the hype has shifted to worry after they dropped the first three non-conference games of the season in unique fashion. However, the Lumberjacks can erase all doubt of their critics with a opening Southland Conference win against the Nicholls State Colonels Saturday evening inside the high hills of Homer Bryce Stadium.

Nicholls won a share of the 2018 Southland Conference title along with the Incarnate Word Cardinals. SFA was dealt a filthy 47-14 loss at the hands of the Cardinals when both teams met last season. This season, SFA opens up SLC play against the champs and their attitude will have to be at a different place for them to steal this game under their own bright lights.

It's no secret the Lumberjacks have seen their share of struggles since the season began. A slew of SFA's upperclassmen players have been inactive since the season started due to injuries and ineligibility rules. As a result of the veteran players' absences, Carthel has inserted many freshmen players into major positional spots within the lineup. Despite their inexperience and lack of knowledge to particular situations, Carthel is pleased with how his young players have performed after being thrusted into the spotlight.

"Their giving it their all," Carthel said. 

"It's not a division one program in the country that has three true freshmen starting across the middle in the offensive line and all across the board at other major positions. We were disappointed at how the last two games ended. We played a great team up in Utah and played a nationally ranked Tarleton State team and their as good as any FCS team in the country. I was really pleased with the maturity and the effort our young guys displayed in those games. These young freshmen have grown, their doing a great job developing and their practicing hard to prepare themselves to get better on gameday. We clearly have some issues on the inside that's hindered us from putting our whole team on the field, but I'm proud of our young guys for stepping up as well as our upperclassmen for shouldering more of load than what they were supposed to. We're going to play hard, play our brand football, put ourselves in position to win the fourth quarter, and work ourselves toward pulling this game out and shocking somebody.

While Carthel is confident in his team's ability to compete with Nicholls, he knows they're not a team to take lightly. 

"They're in their fifth year, they've followed the blueprint to success and it's really paying off for them right now," Carthel said.

  "They have some great players. Their entire senior class is special because they were able to keep most of the guys there for multiple years and they've grown into s great unit. Nicholls is a tremendous football team, but we've had a good week of practice and we're ready to accept the challenge.

Here's three things to look for in SFA's Southland Conference opener against the Colonels.

1. Defensive Improvement

The SFA defensive unit struggled during their three non-conference games to start the season. In three games the SFA defense has allowed 46 points per game, 138 combined points, 684 rushing yards, 1,034 passing yards and 19 total touchdowns. Additionally, they allow an average of 228 rushing yards per game, 344.67 passing yards per game and 83 total first downs. While they've made numerous key third down stops and secured their first pick-six during last weekends loss to Southern Utah, they haven't performed to the level their accustomed to nor to the level you'd expect coming from a defensive coordinator with a background like Scott Power has. 

The Nicholls offense has averaged 28 points per game on 120 total plays and have scored 56 combined points in their first two games of the season. They accumulated 416 rushing yards, 350 passing yards and eight total touchdowns. They've also averaged 190 rushing yards per game, 175 passing yards per game and a total of 365 offensive yards per game. Chase Forcade, the reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year, has thrown for 350 yards on 27-40 passing attempts and two touchdowns during the Colonels' two games this season.

Nicholls has played one less game than SFA so the Lumberjacks have more game-time experience than them, but this opening conference game gives Nicholls an unique opportunity to be more creative on the offensive side of the ball and bring out the magic that helped them win a share last season's SLC title. As a result, the Lumberjacks will also have to bring their magic that's been in the wind from the previous three games. Forcade is a seasoned quarterback who has the ability to kill a defense with his legs and his arm. SFA will look to put pressure on him and force him into making tough throws in traffic as well. The defense hasn't been consistent in forcing sacks, applying pressure and playing the pass, so this game will be a the biggest test for the SFA defense and if they can improve in those areas they'll give the offense numerous chances to score at a high rate.

2. Situational Play Calling

The SFA coaching staff made mistakes with their offensive and defensive play call that had a direct impact in the ending result of their overtime loss to Southern Utah. In the game of football it matters when you choose to call a certain play and for the Lumberjacks to win this game the offensive and defensive play call has to be consistent and one point all throughout the game.

The last time SFA played on their home turf they gave up three long touchdown plays during the first half which hindered them from getting a competitive edge over the Texans of Tarleton State. The defensive schemes and defensive play calls on those three plays alone were questionable and they proved to be a devastating blow. Additionally, during the Southern Utah game the offense was scoring at will during the second half, but the defense never could get into a groove which led to a scoring rampage for the opponents. Near the end of regulation, the offense could've tried harder to get the ball in scoring position with the personnel they had on the field, however Matt Storm, offensive coordinator, elected to play for overtime which eventually resulted in the demise of SFA. The Lumberjacks have the firepower on both sides of the ball to be more aggressive and be more risky with their play calls and they'll have to use their creative juices to keep their opponents guessing throughout the duration of the game. 

Overall, the play calling has to improve in these situations because the right play call can make a difference in a win or a loss.

3. Ride the Running Game

This season the Lumberjack rushing unit has compiled 426 total yards on 122 attempts and has scored five touchdowns. Through the first three games they've averaged 142 yards per game. Da'Leon Ward, Josh McGowen and Thomas Hutchings have carried the rushing unit for SFA by being patient with their blocks, using their speed to bust on the outside seams and using their strength and agility to power themselves through the trenches in the middle.

The offensive line for the Lumberjacks haven't reached their full potential yet, but they've done enough to aid the running backs in getting them released of the line before they go up the field. The Nicholls defense has allowed 516 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns so far during the season. The early ineffectiveness of the Colonels rush defense can be a huge advantage for the SFA running backs. If the weather stays wet the Jacks will have to key in on the rushing game for most of the game and if they can get positive production like they have in their previous games, they'll be able to control the pace of the game and open the door for the passing game to break through at the right time. 

If the Lumberjacks can be productive in these three categories while avoiding turnovers and mistakes they'll have every opportunity to secure their first win of the season and a healthy SLC win.

Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, at Homer Bryce Stadium. 

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