The Demons (3-4 overall, 0-2 in the Southland Conference) had the upper hand for much of Saturday night against a rising Southeastern Louisiana (5-2, 2-0) team, but a pivotal series of mistakes in just over three minutes midway through the third quarter opened the door for the Lions to rally with a 16-point outburst that was the turning point in their 37-22 road win.
Northwestern rolled up 490 offensive yards, and held SLU's explosive attack to 387 yards, nearly 100 below average. The Demons didn't come close to converting yardage into enough points, hampered by costly penalties and special teams mistakes.
Yet, progress after a league-opening loss at Nicholls was obvious and encouraging, said Thomas.
"Our guys played their tails off, and that's what we are trying to get accomplished. We want to bring back the old style of Demon football, and play aggressively. I was really pleased with the way our offense and our defense performed.
"Missed opportunities were costly. We left a lot of points out there, and that made the difference. Missing the field goals (45, 44 yards) in the first half, getting a penalty when we're inches from the goalline right before halftime that made us settle for a field goal - that's 10 points through our hands right there. We were up 13-7, should have been 20-7," he said.
When a Demon flinched before the snap on third-and-goal inside the 1 in the final 15 seconds of the half, it was the most costly of 12 flags on NSU for 68 yards. It's the fourth time this season the Demons have drawn double-digits in penalties, which galls Thomas.
"Penalties, that's mental, that's a lack of discipline. We've been addressing that and evidently not well enough. This is what holds us back. We can play a lights-out great game, and I've had this conversation with our team multiple times, if we get penalties at the wrong time, it comes back to bite us.
"It happened last night. We had a good team on the ropes. We had a great game plan, one that was well executed. We had mistakes, but not as many as a week earlier. We are on the right path, but we have clean up the penalties," he said.
Special teams miscues continued to haunt Northwestern. Along with the missed placement kicks, a misdirected kickoff triggered the game-changing 92-yard kickoff return touchdown with 8:32 to go in the third quarter by SLU's Xavier Roberson, who had been held in check on his three previous chances.