No. 19 Nicholls stymies No. 24 North Dakota in first round battle

THIBODOUX, La. (UND Athletics) -- It just wasn’t meant to be. No. 19 Nicholls pieced together a strong defense and elusive rushing attack to defeat No. 24 North Dakota, 24-6, in the first round of the FCS playoffs from Thibodaux, La.

UND (7-5) was unable to slow down Julien Gums on the ground, as the sophomore rushed 16 times for 172 yards to help boost Nicholls (9-4) into the second round in back-to-back seasons.

The Colonels rushed for 316 yards on the evening while holding the Fighting Hawks to just 44 yards on 14 attempts. Overall, Nicholls amassed nearly 500 yards of total offense on 66 plays and held North Dakota to just 316 yards on 62 plays.

Dual-threat quarterback Chase Fourcade threw for 165 yards and a touchdown on 14-of-16 through the air, adding 46 yards rushing and a score. Eight of those 14 completions went to his big wide receiver, Dai’Jean Dixon, who hauled in 122 yards and a 45-yard touchdown.

In his final game, Nate Ketteringham completed 27-of-47 for 269 yards, but was held off the scoresheet and turned it over a pair of times. The senior was intercepted in the fourth quarter and fumbled late in the second that led to seven points. Travis Toivonen finished his UND career with 10 catches for 121 yards while fellow senior Noah Wanzek battled through injury to haul in seven passes for 61 yards.

Mason Bennett was all over the field in his final game with eight tackles and two sacks. Jordan Canady led the Fighting Hawks with nine total stops, including seven of the solo variety.

North Dakota marched to midfield on its opening drive, but Ketteringham’s rushing attempt was stuffed on third and short to give the Colonels good field possession. Nicholls was able enter the red zone, but the UND defense held to a field goal near the midway portion of the first quarter.

The defense came up clutch again after Nicholls moved into the red zone on its second possession. Bennett came up with a sack on third down before a fourth down attempt fell short of the sticks to give the ball back to the Hawks trailing 3-0 at the beginning of the second quarter.

UND held strong once again in the red zone following another missed opportunity on the offensive end. Brady Leach couldn’t connect from 47 on a field goal before Nicholls took the ball down to the one. There, the defense held strong with back-to-back stops at the goal line, capped off by a Bennett stuff, to keep the deficit at just three.

Momentum seemed to be shifting towards the visitors after the defensive stand, but Ketteringham was stripped and the Colonels recovered at the one before punching it in a play later to build a 10-0 advantage with just under two minutes remaining in the first half.

Brock Boltmann started the ensuing possession with a 24-yard kick return to give the Hawks good field possession at the 38, where Ketteringham immediately connected with Toivonen for 28 yards down to quickly move into Nicholls territory. UND was able to march it into the red zone for the first time in the game, with Leach ending the half with a 34-yard field goal to pull the visitors within a touchdown, 10-3, heading into the half.

UND’s defense continued to bend but not break on the opening drive on the second half, allowing Nicholls to once again march into visiting territory before Bennett came up with a huge sack and third down to force a punt. The offense turned the stop into points, with Leach connecting on a 42-yard field goal to pull within four, 10-6, at the midway point of the third quarter.

Nicholls finally broke through on the big play they were looking for throughout the game on the ensuing possession, when Forcade found Dixon for 45-yards and the touchdown to take a 17-6 lead with just over four minutes to go in the third period.

Despite the defense holding the Colonels out of the end zone, UND couldn’t turn anything into points down the stretch. The Hawks were driving near the red zone before Ketteringham was intercepted off a double deflection and gave the ball back to Nicholls with just nine minutes to play.

Nicholls punched in a final touchdown to put the game on ice and send the hosts to the second round at No. 1 North Dakota State.

North Dakota ends the season with a 7-5 record and will move into the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020.

NOTES: Noah Wanzek became UND’s single-season record holder for passes caught in the DI era … Mason Bennett moved into first place in UND’s DI history in career sacks … Nate Ketteringham broke Danny Freund’s DI single-season record for passing yards and pass completions … Wanzek finished just four yards shy of 1,000 yards this season … UND falls to 3-10 all-time in road playoff games and 0-2 in the FCS playoffs … UND finishes the season 3-4 against ranked opponents … The Hawks finish the season 33-for-35 in the red zone with zero turnovers … Tommy Schuster entered the game and completed one pass … Evan Holm recorded a fumble recovery to tally two turnovers in his four games played.