Demons’ checklist vs. Grambling expanded by unexpected issues
NATCHITOCHES – Preparing for only the fourth football meeting ever with Grambling, and the first since 2009, Northwestern State coach Jay Thomas and his staff have plenty of concerns facing the talented Tigers.
Thomas knew the defending HBCU and Southwestern Athletic Conference champions presented a lot of problems. He didn’t anticipate adding hydration and a usually trouble-free NSU kicking game to the mix.
The Demons and Tigers collide at 6 Saturday evening in Grambling at Robinson Stadium, with both teams hoping to rebound from losses to in-state FBS opponents Louisiana Tech and Tulane, respectively.
The Demons’ demise in Ruston last Saturday began when quarterback J.D. Almond exited the game with cramps after a six-yard run to the Bulldogs’ 38 on first down midway through the third quarter in a 24-all tie. More than a half-dozen teammates, nearly all defensive players, were felled by cramps in the final 16 minutes after Tech moved on top.
“The cramping was a worst-case scenario for us,” said Thomas. “We’d practiced in cool weather, and with what we were able to do curtailed by being inside or having practice shortened, until two days before kickoff. The humidity that evening was really, really severe compared to anything we had faced in more than a week. That was very critical when the game was tied and was still very much in reach early in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to do a better job of being sure our guys are hydrated all week, on game day and during the game, even when it’s cool outside as it’s been the last couple of days,” he said. “You have to work at it, no different than practice or film study. We push it all the time. You see our players carrying big water bottles around campus. It can’t be over-emphasized this week.”
But there were certainly other factors as crucial to last Saturday’s outcome that NSU must address, he said.
“Still, you’ve got to play the game with whoever’s available and you can’t have missed tackles or turnovers. That’s what happened to us late in the game and give Tech credit for making the most of them like good teams do.”
After three of those missed tackles on one play allowed Bulldogs’ returner Teddy Veal to shake free for a 66-yard punt return touchdown, NSU suffered a subtle but significant blow. Punter and placekicker Eric Piccione absorbed a blindside block that resulted in a concussion which will bench him for at least the Grambling game.
Piccione was honorable mention All-Southland Conference in his first season at NSU a year ago. His field goal range and accuracy, his kickoff skill and his reliable and effective punting have been staples for the Demons’ special teams.
Replacing him on kicks will be redshirt freshman Austyn Fendrick, who has made marked improvement in preseason camp and has a “bigger leg” than NSU senior star, said Thomas. Sophomore Parker Pastorello, who also looked good in August drills, will handle punts and replace Almond as the holder for Pastorello’s placement kicks.
“We’ve looked good in that phase this week,” said Thomas. “Of course, any time there’s a change in those roles, it’s a concern, but based on what we’ve seen since we started camp, and this week, we feel good.”
Although a Demon fumble recovery on a kickoff set up a short third-quarter touchdown run, NSU surrendered 14 points to the Bulldogs on Veal’s runback and a fumbled kickoff returned for Tech’s first TD. The punt return was the first kickoff or punt runback for a score against the Demons since 2013.
“We’ve been very good in the kicking game for the last four seasons and we will be again,” said Thomas. “It’s critical to win or at least stay even in that phase. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on it this week.”
Meanwhile NSU’s offense and defense are prepping for tough tests from the Tigers, whose head coach, Broderick Fobbs, was a Demon assistant a decade ago (2003-06, serving as co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach in 2005-06).
Said Thomas: “As soon as you turn on the film, you don’t watch long before you say, ‘Wow.’ Coach Fobbs and his staff have done a fantastic job turning that program back to a championship level. The talent level is high. The quarterback (DeVante Kincade) is dynamic, the running back (Martez Carter) is one of the best we’ll see.
“Receivers, offensive line, they’re schematically very sound, and their line is huge. Defensively they give you a lot of multiple looks and there’s lots of talented players on that side, just an excellent secondary,” he said. “You see how they’ve become the SWAC champions and national HBCU champions. They’re a very good FCS program.”
Playing just 4.2 miles west of last week’s venue (Aillet Stadium in Ruston), Thomas is unconcerned about one thing.
“We’ve got the route down,” he said. “We might drive right by Tech’s stadium on the way over to Grambling.”
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