NATCHITOCHES – Appropriately enough, Northwestern State head football coach Brad Laird used the word “huge” to discuss the possibility of a season-ending three-game win streak.
Given what’s at stake when the Demons (3-8, 3-5) face Southland Conference rival Stephen F. Austin (2-9, 2-6) in Thursday’s 6 p.m. season finale at Turpin Stadium, there may not be a better adjective.
The annual Battle for Chief Caddo, the 7-foot-6, 320-plus pound largest trophy in college sports, arrives with Northwestern State aiming to keep its November momentum intact. The game can be heard on the Demon Sports Network, flagshipped by 94.9 FM The River in Natchitoches and including 710 AM KEEL in Shreveport and 105.5 FM KBKK in Alexandria. Streaming video and free streaming audio is available on www.NSUDemons.com and through the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded free through the Apple Store or Google Play.
“It’s huge, because you want to finish strong,” Laird said of possibly ending the season on a three-game win streak. “You want to send this 2019 football team out with a win. You want these 22 seniors, in their last game, to remember it as a win. There is a lot you look at and can take into next year as far as momentum, but to me, it’s more important for what this 2019 team will be known for. The things we’ve shown in the past few weeks, we look to continue to do Thursday night to get the win.”
The matchup with the Lumberjacks marks the final game for 22 Demons seniors, a group that includes record-setting quarterback Shelton Eppler, who needs 145 yards to supplant Laird as Northwestern State’s all-time leader in passing yardage. It is composed of a bevy of fifth-year seniors who entered Northwestern State under coach Jay Thomas before Laird took the helm of his alma mater for the 2018 season.
“I love coach Laird,” said safety Nick Forde, one of 12 fifth-year seniors on the 2019 NSU roster. “He’s done so much for me and a bunch of guys on this team. He was my defensive coordinator and position coach when we came here, so I built a relationship with him early. I appreciate the trust he put in me and the responsibility of being a leader on this team. He treats everybody with respect. He’s going to tell you the same thing he tells anybody else. He treats everyone the same way. The standard’s the standard.”
Forde and the Purple Swarm defense have hit their stride in the Demons’ past three games.
After slowing McNeese’s and Lamar’s powerful rushing games, Northwestern State’s defense recovered from a slow start Saturday at Sam Houston State to allow just seven points in the final 51 minutes of NSU’s 31-28 victory.
Similar to the Demons, the Lumberjacks have improved as the season has progressed. As Northwestern State did, Stephen F. Austin defeated Lamar and Incarnate Word.
Unlike the Demons five days ago, the Lumberjacks were unable to upend one of the four teams that entered the week tied for the conference lead, falling to Central Arkansas, 30-7, on the road.
“You look at their games, and a great example is last week at UCA,” Laird said. “There were a lot of turnovers on both sides, and it’s 3-0 UCA with about five minutes left before the half. It ends up being 13-7 (UCA) at the half, but go back to the other games and you’ll see tight games at halftime and into the third quarter. They’ve been very similar to our games. Some we’ve won, some we’ve lost. That’s what this conference is about this year – the opportunity to win week in and week out.”
For the 22 Demons seniors, it marks a chance to keep Chief Caddo in his residence inside the Northwestern State athletic fieldhouse. NSU has won two straight and three of four in the series as it looks for its first three-game win streak in the series since 1996-98.
“Chief Caddo and I go way back,” said fifth-year offensive lineman Chris Zirkle, whose unit is tasked with carrying and protecting the chief after an NSU victory. “We had him my freshman year, lost him and then maintained him. Our main goal is to win, and it would be nice to send us out on that note and have the guys carry it into next season having won four of the last five.”
Emotions will be nearer the surface on Senior Night, but for the Demons, the mindset remains the same.
“I’ve been able to say it every week,” Laird said. “It’s about us. It’s about our preparation. It’s about our 60 minutes and the opportunity to play for Chief Caddo, the largest trophy in college football. We understand the importance of keeping Chief Caddo here, which makes Thursday night intriguing.”