SAN ANTONIO – Throughout the first seven games of the 2019 season, the Northwestern State football team experienced a gamut of emotions.
It took longer than expected for that winning feeling to arrive, but it did so Saturday night when Quan Shorts hauled in a 1-yard touchdown pass from Shelton Eppler to lift the Demons to a 44-41 overtime victory against No. 20 Incarnate Word in Southland Conference play.
“It felt really good,” said Shorts, who finished with 11 catches for 99 yards and his eighth touchdown catch of the season. “Shelton (Eppler) trusted me. He threw me the ball. I’m so glad we came out with that win. It’s going to give us a lot of confidence going into next week.”
Down 38-30 with 2:42 to play, the Demons (1-7, 1-4) seemed headed for another one-possession loss, but Shorts and Tanner Ash kept that from happening.
Ash hauled in a 25-yard pass while facing a third-and-9 and Shorts came up with an 18-yard grab to convert a fourth-and-18. Shorts finished with 11 catches, giving him 77 on the season, a new single-season school record.
Ash then found the perfect time for his first career touchdown reception, snaring a 19-yard scoring toss from Shelton Eppler with 19 seconds left to pull the Demons within 38-36. Eppler then found a wide-open Akile Davis for the game-tying 2-point conversion.
Davis’ sideline grab pulled the Demons even for the first time in the second half, marking a rally from a 31-16 deficit midway through the third quarter.
“We’ve been so close so many times,” said Ash, who finished with four catches for 58 yards. “Coach (Brad) Laird preaches it every week, ‘Never quit fighting.’ That’s what we did, and we came out on top.
“We rep scramble drills every week, every day. I saw Epp was in a little bit of trouble and tried to make something happened, and it did.”
Down by 15 following Mark Sullivan’s 39-yard touchdown catch, the Demons’ punting unit delivered at a most opportune time.
Jaden Smith muffed Parker Pastorello’s 55-yard punt and Coby McGee dove on the loose ball at the Cardinals’ 6-yard line.
Two Stadford Anderson runs later, the Demons pulled within eight on Anderson’s first touchdown run of the season, a 1-yarder.
While that drive took just two plays, the Demons continued their trend of strong second-half offense, using a 13-play, 76-yard drive that took 7:46 off the clock to pull within one.
Jared West’s third touchdown run of the game, a 5-yarder, made it a one-point game with 8:27 to play.
“(West and Anderson) continued to battle, to get those tough yards,” second-year head coach Brad Laird said. “The offensive line getting some movement, we knew that was going to be critical, and they were able to do it. You go back to the third quarter, and I told them at the beginning of the fourth, they took their punch. They went up by two scores. We took that punch and continued to battle. The special teams turnover by Coby McGee, and us punching it in, gave us the momentum back.”
The Demons never relinquished the momentum after Ash’s catch.
Led by Ja’Quay Pough’s 21-tackle performance, the Northwestern State defense proved opportunistic and stiffened at the right times.
Shemar Bartholomew snared an end zone interception in the second quarter and later forced and recovered a fumble that set up Daniel Justino’s 29-yard field goal as the halftime buzzer sounded.
Pough and the defense forced UIW into Carson Mohr’s 26-yard field goal in overtime, setting up the Demons’ first win against a ranked team since taking down then-No. 18 McNeese on Nov. 18, 2018.
Pough’s big day made him the first Demon to collect at least 15 tackles in a game since Peyton Guidry made 18 stops against Stephen F. Austin in the 2017 season finale. It also proved the junior linebacker to be prescient.
“When I wrote down my goals in my binder before the game, I wrote down 20 tackles,” Pough said. “We have a young team and what keeps us going is having a little faith.”
It was faith rewarded for Laird, whose decision to go for two against Central Arkansas with 1:30 to play a week ago left the Demons one point short.
While the result didn’t work out, Laird’s decision reverberated, especially in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“Coach Laird kept us together,” Shorts said. “Last week he said if we were in the same position, we would go for it again, and we did. We trust in coach Laird. We trust in (offensive coordinator) coach (Brad) Smiley and the play calling, and I’m glad it worked out for us.”