THIBODAUX — Backup tailback Kelvin Bennett ran for a career-high 169 yards, 118 of those in the second half, and Khalil Thomas, a former Catholic High standout, scored on a 94-yard kickoff return on the final play of the third quarter as No. 4 McNeese State rolled up 512 yards of offense en route to a 55-30 Southland Conference win over Nicholls on Saturday.
It’s the first time in school history the Cowboys have scored 50 or more points four times in a season.
The balanced attacked saw McNeese (7-1, 3-0) racked up 313 yards on the ground and 199 yards in the air. But the big stat came in the special teams area where McNeese got its first kickoff return for a touchdown since the 2010 season while four of the six punt returns helped set up good field position that led 24 points. McNeese finished the game with 189 kickoff return yards (37.8 average) and 41 punt return yards (13.7 average).
“We played really good defensively in the first half,” said head coach Matt Viator. “We did some good things on offense too. The biggest key for us today was we had some good special teams plays. The first touchdown was set up by a punt return and of course we had the kickoff return for a touchdown.”
Marcuse Wiltz followed Bennett with 98 yards on 14 carries. Cody Stroud completed 16 of 21 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown while Tyler Bolfing completed both of his passes for 20 yards.
“My job was really easy today,” said Stroud. “The receivers ran some great routes and made the grabs. All I had to do was get it to them.”
Stroud’s touchdown pass to Diontae Spencer in the first quarter tied a McNeese record with 13 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Nicholls (4-4, 1-2) scored the first points of the game on an Andrew Dolan 48 yard field goal to give the Colonels a 3-0 lead just 3-and-a-half minutes into the game.
Spencer’s 5-yard touchdown grab five minutes later put the Cowboys up to stay at 7-3 with 6:02 to go in the quarter. That score was set up by his 27-yard punt return that started the drive at the Nicholls 10-yard line.
After a missed 49-yard field goal attempt by Dolan, Wiltz helped march the Cowboys 68 yards on 8 plays with 26 yards rushing on three carries as Dylan Long scored the first of his two touchdowns on a 2-yard run to give McNeese a 14-3 lead with 1:09 to play in the opening quarter.
On McNeese’s next possession following a second straight Nicholls punt, Long scored his second touchdown on a 4-yard plunge to make it 21-3 early in the second quarter.
Nicholls capitalized on a missed 44-yard field goal by McNeese’s Ryan Rome when Kale Henderson connected with Erik Buchanan on a 42-yard pass-catch score to cut the gap to 21-10 but the Cowboys wasted little time to strike back as Rome hit from 30 and 43 yards out in the final 4:45 to send McNeese into the half with a 27-10 lead.
Nicholls took advantage of a couple of big offensive plays with a 54-yard run by Dalton Hilliard and a 21 yard score from Tuskani Figaro to cut into the lead at 34-17. On the ensuing possession, Stroud connected with Ernest Celestie for 40 yards followed by Wiltz runs of 10, 17 and a 5-yard score to make it 41-17.
The Colonels got another score with two seconds to play in the third quarter when Henderson found Buchanan from four yards out to make it 41-23 after a failed PAT attempt.
The Colonels recorded 396 offensive yards — 239 on the ground and another 157 passing.