Northwestern State didn’t lack for golden opportunities Saturday night.
But the golden end zones at Southeastern Louisiana’s Strawberry Stadium were difficult for the Demons to dent. NSU’s repeated failures in the red zone were decisive in a 24-17 loss to the Lions in a Southland Conference football battle not settled until the final play.
The Demons (2-2 overall, 1-1 in the Southland) didn’t convert on drives to the SLU 4, 11, 1 and 3 yard lines, twice with unsuccessful fourth-down tries, once on a missed 27-yard field goal and the last time on a fumble at the Lions 3.
That one didn’t prove costly thanks to a dynamic defensive play two snaps later, when NSU linebacker Quindarrius Whitley led a couple teammates to a strip sack and linebacker Blake Stephenson pounced on the fumble in the end zone to get the visitors within seven with 5:34 to go.
The Demons ran 19 plays in the red zone, including eight inside the 10, which didn’t produce points on four different possessions. NSU mounted drives of 16, 20 and 10 plays, covering a combined 226 yards, that didn’t produce any scoring.
Yet NSU was at the SLU 38 in the final minute and trying to throw a Hail Mary pass on the game’s final play.
“You fail to convert like we did in the red zone, and you’ve got a huge burden to overcome. We almost did it anyway,” said first-year Demons’ coach Brad Laird, “and that’s what I’m so proud about, that our guys fought so hard and found a way to be in this until the final play.”
There wouldn’t have been overtime, he said. If NSU had scored, the Demons had a two-point conversion play ready.
That hardly seemed possible at halftime when the Lions (2-3, 2-1) held a commanding 21-3 advantage.
“I told them at halftime, let’s make one play and see what happens,” said Laird. “It took us a while to do that, but once we did that we were able to get momentum, make more plays and be right there at the end.”
The Demons moved the ball throughout, posting 241 yards in the first half and 249 afterward. They ran for a season-best 165, including a career-high 137 on 22 carries featuring countless tackles broken by junior running back Jared West.
Quarterback Shelton Eppler rallied from an ineffective first half throwing the ball to go 12-of-14 for 170 yards in the fourth quarter. He was replaced at halftime by Clay Holgorsen, who led the 20-play, 79-yard drive to the SLU 1 late in the third quarter, only to miss a fourth-down keeper by inches.
NSU finally cashed in a drive on its next chance, with Eppler, who finished 25-of-40 for 268 yards, locked in and leading a 67-yard march in 2:42 that ended with his 11-yard strike to Jaylen Watson. That narrowed the gap to 24-10 with 11:18 remaining.
The Demons were poised for another score on their next series, covering 72 yards in 10 plays, but West fumbled at the 3. Two snaps later, it didn’t matter thanks to an NSU defense that in addition to scoring on the fumble recovery, clamped down on SLU after halftime, limiting the Lions to 131 yards and only four first downs.
NSU stared down the big halftime deficit partly because the Demons whiffed on two drives inside the Lions’ 10, while drawing eight penalty flags for 70 yards in the first two periods.
SLU scored on the game’s second play, when Chason Virgil threw deep and Mitchell Austin made a nice adjustment sprinting and snagging a pass thrown outside and to his left, and outran pursuit on a 76-yard bomb just 35 seconds into play.
The Demons scored on their opening possession for the third straight game, using the running game effectively on an 11-play, 56-yard march that netted a 36-yard Austyn Fendrick field goal.
NSU looked poised to take the lead on its next chance, but stalled on two downs inside the SLU 5.
Another 11-play drive was stymied when the Demons didn’t convert on a third-and-1 run and a fourth-down pass into the end zone.
“Probably should’ve kicked the field goal, but I thought we were going to need touchdowns, not field goals,” said Laird. “As it turned out, we were one touchdown short.”
The Lions stretched their advantage after a 42-yard Mitchell punt return to the Demons’ 8 early in the second quarter. A second-down Virgil pass to C.J. Turner lifted SLU up 14-3.
After those big plays, SLU took control on an 80-yard, 10-snap drive capped by a 1-yard plunge from former quarterback-turned-running back Lorenzo Nunez.
Before that series, NSU failed to convert, going three-and-out and punting into the end zone, after Malik Sonnier forced a fumble that the Demons’ Isaiah Longino returned three yards to the 35.
NSU was poised to trim the deficit in the closing seconds of the half, but came up empty on four downs from the Lions’ 9 to waste a 76-yard march in 12 previous snaps.
“We’ll agonize over a lot of things until 1 o’clock tomorrow, and then we’ll go about the business of getting ready for next Saturday in Turpin Stadium against Nicholls,” said Laird. “There’s a lot of football left and I think we saw tonight we can be right in the thick of it if we’re more consistent, from me on down.”
The Demons start a two-game homestand against two 2017 FCS playoff teams, nationally ranked Nicholls and Sam Houston, with the Colonels’ visit next Saturday at 6.