Coming off a difficult 1-10 season in 2011, Nicholls State head coach Charlie Stubbs, a former Oregon State assistant, and his players were optimistic that better days were ahead in 2012.
Hurricane Isaac, though, had other ideas.
Battered by one of the strongest storms to wallop southeast Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the picturesque community of Thibodaux where Nicholls is located shut down for more than a week in late August and early September as residents cleaned up from the ferocious tropical cyclone that first made landfall along the Gulf Coast on August 28.
The effect was profound: no football practice for Nicholls State for about 10 days and the scheduled September 1 season opener at Oregon State was postponed as the storm's aftermath kept the Colonel coaches and players hunkered down in Louisiana.
Because of the storm's devastation, Nicholls State had few practice opportunities heading into the first game of the season, September 8 at South Alabama. The Colonels lost, 9-3, and the struggles have lasted all season.
"(The storm) knocked us off rhythm," Stubbs told BeaverBlitz on Tuesday. "We missed a lot of practice time and we lost a lot of momentum because our players scattered to go home to help their families cope with the hurricane. It took a long time to get everything functioning again."
Nicholls State, a member of the Southland Conference, carries a 1-9 record and a seven-game losing streak into Saturday's 11:30 a.m. PT makeup game at Reser Stadium against the Beavers, which need a win to keep their Alamo Bowl hopes alive.
"We haven't had near the season we wanted," Stubbs said. "But we have a lot of young guys in the program and only 15 seniors, some of whom don't even play significantly. We know we're going up against a very good football team and very good program. It will be a great measuring tool. Hopefully, we'll play real well and have some individual guys make some plays and draw some confidence from this experience. We'll definitely have our hands full.
"We're excited about the challenge. We're going in there to compete and win, but we're also going in there to build our program. Our future is a lot brighter than it is today. If it wasn't for this game, our equipment would already be packed up. But we're still practicing and we get another chance to play a game. It's great for us."
Saturday marks the first time Oregon State has concluded the regular season with a non-conference game since 2006 when a trip to Hawaii closed out the year.
Oregon State is aiming for its first undefeated non-conference regular season record since 2002. According to the Sagarin rankings, the Beavers have overcome the third-most difficult schedule in the nation to post the third-best turnaround of any Division I-A team. Oregon State could match Middle Tennessee (2-9 to 8-3) and Ohio State (6-7 to 12-0) at plus-6 with an expected victory on Saturday.
Offensively, the Colonels possess some mid-major talent, starting with running back Marcus Washington, who has 550 yards (61.1 yards per game) and six touchdowns rushing while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Washington handles the bulk of the ground game responsibilities for Nicholls along with Jesse Turner (247 yards on 51 carries).
"Marcus is a complete back for us," Stubbs said. "We ask a lot from our backs. They don't just carry the ball, but they also catch the ball out of the backfield. Marcus does a great job with that and understands blocking. I just hope we can spring him a few times so the fans can see him play. He's a good player for this level of football. We need to run the football because we're not good enough it throw it down after down."
Nicholls is 80th in Division I-AA (FCS) in total offense, a ranking that would certainly be lower without a productive passing game sparked by quarterback Landry Klann, who has thrown for 1,885 yards and eight touchdowns with 12 interceptions in 2012, completing 56.5 percent (157-of-278) of his passes.
"I was hoping for fewer interceptions and more touchdowns, but he (Klann) has really progressed well," Stubbs said. "He is more of a pocket quarterback. My plans were to blend him along with a more mobile quarterback (LaQuintin Caston) we had to make us really hard to defend, but he (Caston) was injured early in the season and hasn't been the same since."
Turner leads the Colonels receiving corps with 34 receptions for 348 yards and is one of four pass catchers with 20 or more receptions. Three of Aladaro Russell's 10 receptions have gone for touchdowns and he is averaging 22.7 yards per catch.
In terms of play-calling, the Nicholls offense is evenly balanced between running (331 snaps) and passing (322) as they've averaged 349.9 yards per game this season, fifth highest in the Southland Conference.
"I believe from all my years of coaching that if you can run the football well, you have a chance," Stubbs said. "Our play-action has been good with some deep passes down the field."
Stubbs' biggest concern facing the Beavers is along the offensive front, which could experience an abundance of problems trying to keep OSU defensive end Scott Crichton and the rest of the Oregon State defensive line away from Klann.
"Oregon State is tremendous in their offensive and defensive lines," Stubbs said. "It will cause us major problems. We're going to have to figure out a way to move the football on offense. (Crichton) is so quick off the ball."
Oregon State has amassed 71 tackles for loss in 11 games, an increase of almost 37 percent over last season (52 TFL for 208 lost yards).
The Beavers are looking to allow nine or fewer points for the fourth time this season, which would be the most since the Fiesta Bowl season in 2000.
Although moving the football hasn't been a major issue for Nicholls, turnovers (25) have plagued the Colonels all season, which has resulted in many scoring opportunities being wasted.
Porous defense has been the major culprit for Colonels' poor record as they're giving up 433 yards and almost 35 points per game, figures which put Nicholls near the bottom of the Division I-AA national rankings in both categories.
However, Nicholls has one of the top defensive players in the Southland Conference with linebacker Jordan Piper (102 tackles) collecting almost twice as many tackles as the second best Colonel defender. Linebacker Rashar Knight has four sacks. Piper had 23 tackles against Central Arkansas earlier this season.
"It's been very challenging," Stubbs said of his defense. "We just don't have the defensive players up front. We're trying to recruit those types of guys, but we just don't have them right now. That puts more pressure on our linebacking corp. We have one premier player (Piper) on defense. He is definitely the leader of our group."
Stubbs, an Oregon State assistant during Dave Kragthorpe's "Air Express" Era from 1985-90, coached record-setting quarterback Erik Wilhelm during his six-year stint with the Beavers.
"I knew that if you go to Corvallis you'd better go early in the year because I know the weather can change," Stubbs said.
When the Nicholls State plane lands in Corvallis on Friday afternoon, Stubbs will find an Oregon State program blessed with a look and feel radically different from the one he worked for in the late 1980's.
The Beavers were 17-48-2 during his six seasons on the OSU staff under Kragthorpe.
"From what I gather, the commitment level at Oregon State as far as facilities is light years ahead from when I was there," Stubbs said. "Back then, there were the haves and have-nots in the Pac-10. There were those schools that had everything and there were schools that were just trying to make it. We were one of those. But we did have some very good players. It is different now. I commend them."
Nicholls opens next season at Oregon as Stubbs continues to upgrade the Colonels' schedule.