It took the Northwestern State football team 12 plays to navigate 75 yards and tie Saturday night’s Southland Conference football game at No. 20 Incarnate Word.
Second-year head coach Brad Laird rattled off the down and distance of four of those crucial plays like clockwork when reflecting on the most pivotal moments of the Demons’ 44-41 overtime victory against the Cardinals.
We got it with 2:42 left,” Laird said. “There was a third-and-six, a third-and-nine, a fourth-and-18, and a 2-point play. Those were four huge plays those guys made to put ourselves in position to go to overtime.”
On two of those plays, quarterback Shelton Eppler found an under-the-radar answer to deliver those critical conversions.
Redshirt sophomore receiver Tanner Ash had a 25-yard grab on the third-and-9 play from the Demons’ 26-yard line to jump start the drive. Nine plays later, Ash hauled in a 19-yard scoring catch on third-and-6 after Eppler had the ball stripped from him before recovering and evading pressure to find Ash in between a pair of UIW defenders.
The touchdown was part of a breakout game for Ash, who established career highs in catches (4) and receiving yards (58) while making the start in place of Gavin Landry, who was injured against Central Arkansas the previous week.
“Three of his four catches were on third downs, crucial plays in the game,” Laird said. “He’s one who you see do it in practice. He’s consistent doing it in practice. He’ll tell you his opportunity came because a good friend of his was injured, and he wouldn’t want that to happen. For him to step up when Gavin was down was huge and a great moment for him.”
While Ash converted two of the key plays on the final drive, his fellow receivers Quan Shorts and Akile Davis delivered as well.
Shorts worked through a knee injury to snare 11 passes, his fourth double-figure catch game of the season, including the game-winning, 1-yard touchdown grab in overtime. Shorts’ biggest catch in regulation came with the Demons facing a fourth-and-18 from their 43.
Eppler found Shorts right at the first-down marker, and Shorts hung on for the conversion, part of a night that saw him become the program’s single-season reception leader. Through eight games, Shorts has 77 receptions, surpassing Ed Eagan’s 73 catches in 2014.
“Knowing the Quan I’ve seen daily, if he had the opportunity to play, he was going to play,” Laird said. “You could tell he was in pain, but he battled through it and made plays while he was hurting. Guys like that, guys who are playing hurt, finding a way, it makes it gratifying to see that success because of that.”
With UIW often dropping eight defenders into coverage, the Demons’ offense took a steady approach to the passing game. Eppler completed 30 of 40 passes for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Five of those passes went to Davis, but it the 2-point conversion pass off a well-run route by Davis that pulled the Demons even and erased a bitter taste from the week before when Northwestern State could not complete a 2-point conversion that would have put it ahead of Central Arkansas with 90 seconds to play.
“The 2-point play, every Wednesday, we do red zone, one-on-ones,” Laird said. “That route has been to a T on Wednesdays, and it was great to see it happen Saturday in such a crucial moment.”
After falling down 31-16 midway through the third quarter, the Demons scored 28 of the final 38 points of the game to hand UIW its first home loss under second-year head coach Eric Morris.
It was the second largest second-half comeback under Laird, trailing NSU’s 31-28 Homecoming win against Houston Baptist on Oct. 27, 2018, in which the Demons rallied from an 18-point deficit to down the Huskies.
“In adverse times, our guys continue to step up and make plays,” Laird said. “The little things show up in those situations. Coby McGee, maybe the biggest play of the game on the (muffed) punt. Just the hustle and the little things he did on that particular punt to be able to get the turnover, and for us to take it in and score when we’re down 31-16 and absolutely nothing is going right for us. Those little things in situations like that turn out to be big things at the end of the day.”