THIBODAUX - The 500th victory in Northwestern State football history had little mystery Saturday afternoon as the visiting Demons dashed to a three-touchdown first quarter lead behind quarterback Brad Henderson on the way to NSU's first shutout triumph in 53 games, 34-0 over Nicholls.
It was a regionally-televised Southland Conference opener for both teams. Northwestern (2-2 overall) followed losses at LSU and SMU with a dominating performance, outgaining Nicholls (1-3) by 396-212.
Henderson had TD throws of 9, 2 and 48 yards in the opening period while finishing 13 of 19 for 187 yards, and adding 44 yards rushing. The triumph moved the Demons to 500-418-22 in 102 seasons since their first intercollegiate game in 1907.
A goalline stand late in the first half, with the Demons stopping the Colonels at the 3, preserved the first shutout for Northwestern since a 9-0 victory at Nicholls in 2006.
"That was a big statement, to hold them out then," said third-year Northwestern coach Bradley Dale Peveto. "If they get in there, they're back in it, 21-7. Our offense then did a great job of digging out and turning around the field so no damage was done."
Northwestern converted short fields for scoring drives of 48, 44 and 41 yards, blending an explosive running game with effective passing, keeping the Colonels on their heels with play action. The balance was reflected in 114 rushing yards and 116 in the air at halftime.
Nicholls had only 104 total yards, most of that on a 69-yard drive behind backup quarterback Beaux Hebert, who entered the contest for an ineffective LaQuintin Caston. Hebert guided the Colonels down to the 3 where a fourth-and-1 was slammed shut on a tackle for no gain by the Demons' defensive interior, with the stop credited to All-America linebacker Derek Rose.
Rose, back off a hamstring injury that kept him on the sideline for all but four plays a week ago, provided the initial spark for the Demons by intercepting a pass deflected at the line and returning it to the Colonels' 44. Six plays later, Henderson looped a 9-yard touchdown to true freshman JaMarcus Russell five minutes into the game.
A nifty 23-yard punt return by Kevin Shief set up Northwestern at the Colonels 41 got the visitors started late in the quarter. A play-action toss from Henderson to tight end Tucker Nims from the 2 doubled the lead with 2:52 showing in the period.
Nicholls took the kickoff and advanced to a second-and-3 near midfield, but the Demons stalemated them on the next three plays, stuffing a fourth-and-less than a yard gamble at the Colonels' 48. Henderson took the next snap and T.C. Henry snagged a perfectly thrown bomb inside the 5, sprinting in for a 21-0 lead with 46 seconds left in the opening quarter.
Rose recovered a fumble on Nicholls' first play after halftime, setting up a 21-yard John Shaughnessy field goal. Northwestern's top rusher, sophomore tailback D.J. Palmer (12 carries, 78 yards), tallied over the right side from 1 yard out eight snaps after a 25-yard Shief punt return set up the Demons at the Nicholls 29.
Shaughnessy added a 35-yard field goal midway through the fourth period.
"We had a great plan designed by (offensive coordinator) coach (Todd) Cooley, and it had a lot of play action," said Henderson. "It opened up just like we thought. Give credit to the offensive line, they created some big creases and the backs ran very hard."
He said the Demon offense remained confident despite gaining only 226 total yards in the previous two games.
"That's a confidence booster, when you come out and put up points against a very good Nicholls defense after struggling the last two weeks against two great defenses. We had a great plan, we believed in each other, and we executed pretty well," said Henderson.
"We played a great schedule that prepared us for conference play, no doubt," said Peveto. "Our strength of schedule showed up today."
Sophomore safety Bert White topped NSU with eight tackles. The Demons had four sacks while winning the turnover battle 3-1 and going 6 of 13 on third-down conversions, holding the Colonels to 4 of 14 on third down tries and 1 of 5 on fourth down.
"(Defensive coordinator) Brad Laird came up with a great game plan, and called a great game. We took out the quarterback, who i and it paid off," said Peveto. Caston, who ran for 134 yards on 18 carries last November in a stunning 37-7 Nicholls win over the Demons, was held to 28 yards on 13 carries and only 71 yards passing.
The win in the league opener sent the Demons home to Turpin Stadium, where they will play four of their remaining six conference contests, starting with a 6 o'clock battle with McNeese State next Saturday.