HAMMOND — When Northwestern State coach Jay Thomas talked about the points of emphasis going into last weekend’s clash against Southeastern Louisiana, he talked about quarterback Bryan Bennett and the Lions aggressive defense.
But he didn’t stop there. Thomas also lauded the Lions’ special teams play, declaring they were the best his team had faced, and that was after games with FBS opponents Baylor and Louisiana Tech.
With Bennett bottled up and SLU’s offense limited to a season-low 235 yards, the play of both the Lions defense and special teams were of paramount importance in holding off Northwestern State down the stretch in a key 30-22 victory in Southland Conference play.
“Our coaches do a good job of showing us the importance of special teams,” SLU cornerback Denzel Thompson said. “They remind us if things aren’t going well in other areas, we can make it up in special teams and keep us in the game.”
Thompson was at the forefront of SLU’s special teams and defensive handy work, recovering a blocked field goal and registering two of his team’s three interceptions, including the game-saving pick in the end zone in the final minute of play.
In all SLU (4-2, 2-0), which travels to Lamar (4-2, 1-1) for a 6 p.m. Southland Conference game Saturday, blocked three kicks, relied on the superb kicking of senior Ryan Adams and a momentum-changing kickoff return from Xavier Roberson to impact the team’s latest victory.
“We talked in preseason about how good we’ve been on special teams and continue to be good,” SLU special teams coordinator Patrick Toney said. “If we’re going to be successful and make the run we want to, we have to be great on special teams.”
SLU has the top kickoff return and kickoff coverage units in the SLC, and Adams has emerged as one the league’s best kickers. They’ve helped complement a ball-hawking defense that’s first in interceptions and helps the Lions maintain a plus-5 turnover ratio, good enough for second in the conference.
A year after blocking seven kicks, SLU got its first three of the season against Northwestern by controlling the middle of the Demons’ protection. All three blocks were courtesy of hulking 320-pound defensive linemen — Javari Nichols and Ashton Henderson on two field goals — and A.J. Bowen blocked a third-quarter extra point.
“We had an advantage with our line size and had a couple of linemen willing to go in there and create havoc,” Thompson said. “We found a weak spot to try and take a couple of points off the board. Luckily, we had some opportunities.”
Both of the blocked field goals led to scoring opportunities for Adams, who gave SLU a 6-0 lead on field goals of 41 and a school-record 55-yarder in the second quarter.
Linebacker Isiah Corbett made it 16-0 with a 44-yard interception return before Northwestern State to cut into the deficit and trailed 16-8 with less than nine minutes left in the third quarter.
Roberson, the school’s career leader in kickoff return yardage, took advantage of a penalty that backed up Northwestern 5 yards and brought back the ensuing kickoff 79 yards to the 7, setting up Kody Sutton’s 6-yard TD run.
SLU took a commanding 30-8 lead on Bennett’s 28-yard TD pass to Devante Scott before the Demons reeled off 14 straight points, taking advantage of a fumbled punt and later putting together a lengthy drive against a tiring defense.
Northwestern, which recovered an onside kickoff and executed a second successful fake punt on the drive, was rebuffed with 59 seconds to play on Thompson’s interception in the end zone.
“It’s always a plus to have playmakers on your defense that can help you score points,” said Thompson, who also had seven tackles. “We feel just because we play defense doesn’t mean we can’t score points, too.
“We can help the offense put up points.”