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Football's New Playoff Path: USD at Louisiana's Nicholls State on Saturday

 

Football's New Playoff Path: USD at Louisiana's Nicholls State on Saturday

The University of San Diego football team learned its postseason path in the 24-team Football College Subdivision (FCS) playoff bracket Sunday by watching it unfold on ESPNU in the Warren Hospitality Suite. There were cheers, a surprise opponent named and very little knowledge to go on except for one thing — Head Coach Dale Lindsey made it clear what he won't be eating when the team travels to and plays in Thibodaux, Louisiana, later this week.

"I'm allergic to shellfish ... shrimp, crab, lobster, so I know I won't be eating etouffee while we're there," Lindsey responded when asked what he knew about Southland Conference champion Nicholls State (8-3), USD's FCS first-round opponent on Saturday at 1 p.m. Pacific.

A temporary lack of knowledge of Nicholls State's 2018 football team — at least until the coaching staff and players do lots of film study, learn offense and defense tendencies and mismatches to exploit — won’t last. But when the playoff bracket's top eight seeds were announced, a few scenarios evaporated. UC Davis and Eastern Washington, two geographical possibilities, each earned a seed, meaning both were guaranteed a first-round bye this week. USD lost to UC Davis, 54-21, on Sept. 8, but two years ago, USD lost a regular-season game to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the FCS committee paired them again and USD won. The Toreros have also played Montana and Northern Arizona in first-round games, but geography contributed to those game matchups.

Not so this time. The Toreros play in a Pioneer Football League with teams residing in Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina and New York, but there haven't been any USD road trips to Louisiana.

"Starting today, we'll see what they have to offer and see what we can do to try and take advantage of it," Lindsey said. "I know they'll have a lot of great players. There's a ton of very good players in Louisiana. They'll be physically talented, more so than we've played the last eight weeks. We have to raise our awareness and our physicality has to be different than the previous 11 weeks."

Lindsey wasn't knocking the rest of the PFL with his comments, either. He knows his non-athletic scholarship program is in a playoff bracket where the other 23 teams have athletic scholarship talent and USD needs to rise, accordingly, to the challenge.

"We know the level of competition is revved up so you've really got to turn up your energy, the mental and physical parts of your game, and bring it up because that's what the other guys are doing. You have to be ready on game day," Lindsey said.

The USD offense is a national juggernaut. Led by senior quarterback Anthony Lawrence, junior wide receivers Michael Bandy and Michael Armstead, sophomore running back Emilio Martinez, senior offensive lineman Daniel Cooney, and others, Lindsey feels very good about this unit. He likes the special teams' play, too. Defensively, however, that's the question mark.

"The offense generates enough points and ball possession, our special teams have done an exceptionally good job, but the defense, in my opinion, has been a soft spot in our season so far. The defense has played up and down. From this point on, you can only play up. If you play down, you'll go home."

David Tolbert, a defensive back standout, is eager to help the Toreros’ defense step up.

"We need to turn our focus up a notch. There's no second chances, no ‘my bad,’ no next week. You've got to keep winning and to do it, we need to be at our best each play."

Lawrence has literally been the best all season. He's broken several USD career passing records held by past quarterback standouts such as Mason Mills and Josh Johnson, and in tandem with Bandy this season, they've been one of the best quarterback-receiver duos in the nation.

Lawrence will add to his accomplishments statistically in the playoffs, but he knows the most important thing is to win playoff games.

“It’s been awesome and our success has been everything I could imagine for my senior year,” Lawrence said. Now in the playoffs, where every game could be his last as a college player, his determination level is ready to go next level. “I want to leave it all on the field, I want to take more shots, more risks and basically do anything I can to put my team in the best possible position to win.”

Win out and USD can do what all other FCS teams want — end their season Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas, site of the FCS National Championship game. Lawrence truly isn't looking past Nicholls State — a win on Saturday advances USD to a second-round game at No. 3 seed Eastern Washington on Dec. 1 — but he said playing his last college game of the 2018 season in 2019 "would be something to be able to stretch it out as long as possible."

USD football has reached the second round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons, only to lose to North Dakota State, which again is the FCS top seed. The Toreros (9-2 overall, 8-0 PFL) enter the 2018 playoffs in a familiar position, having completed a third straight undefeated PFL season after a 31-14 win at Marist.

Perhaps the biggest change USD made this season was to the coaching staff. Lindsey lost three coaches to other college programs, hired three new assistants and promoted some responsibilities to existing coaches. Jim Jackson, the offensive line coach, moved into a co-offensive coordinator role with Christian Taylor, who is also the quarterbacks coach. Bobby Jay went from secondary coach to defensive coordinator and new hires were Joe Staab (nickel backs), Cory White (tight ends) and Taylor Chapatte (wide receivers).

“They don’t get nearly enough credit,” Lindsey said of his assistant coaches. Indeed, bringing in new people and shifting people to new roles requires a good fit to maintain the successful run USD has produced in PFL and postseason play. It does, after all, take a total team effort.

“We can’t show up and do less than our best,” Lindsey said.

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photo courtesy of USD Athletics

The 2018 USD football team and team supporters watch and wait to hear the Toreros' name called during the FCS Playoff bracket reveal on Sunday.The 2018 USD football team and team supporters watch and wait to hear the Toreros' name called during the FCS Playoff bracket reveal on Sunday.

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