HUNTSVILLE, Texas – For the second straight week, the Northwestern State football team enters Saturday unsure which opposing quarterback will take the majority of the snaps.
What is certain is the Demons (2-8, 2-5) know they face one of the Southland Conference’s stingiest defenses when Northwestern State faces Southland Conference co-leader Sam Houston State (6-4, 4-2) at 12:05 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Saturday’s game can be seen on ESPN+ and 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 KBKK in Alexandria. Free streaming audio is available on www.NSUDemons.com and through the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded free from the Apple Store or Google Play.
“They’re doing what they do and doing it well,” second-year head coach Brad Laird said of the Bearkats, who lead the Southland Conference in scoring defense (16.8 points per game), sacks (3.7 per game) and tackles for loss (11.4 per game, tops in the FCS). “When you look at any defense, you look up front first. They have inside guys who have been really productive. What it’s allowed them to do is play a lot of man in the back end because they’re able to get pressure with four.”
Much like the Bearkats, the Demons have been stout defensively in recent weeks.
In this past Saturday’s 34-13 win against Lamar, Northwestern State limited the Cardinals to 93 rushing yards, nearly half their season average. In the past two games, the Purple Swarm defense has limited McNeese and Lamar to 210 rushing yards on 89 carries, an average of 2.36 yards per carry.
The Demons’ defense also has forced 11 turnovers in its past four games, a streak that began with a four-turnover game against Central Arkansas on Oct. 19.
“We’re just swarming to the ball,” junior defensive tackle Damian Thompson said. “Coach Laird has emphasized that every day since I got here. We’re just trying to strip the ball out and just having fun.”
A week ago, Lamar gave quarterback Marcellus Johnson his first career start. Similarly, the Bearkats’ quarterback situation has been a grab bag in 2019. Four different Bearkats have thrown a touchdown pass and three different Sam Houston State passers have attempted at least 10 passes on the season.
Eric Schmid, who threw for 531 yards and five touchdowns in a Sept. 21 win against Incarnate Word, returned from injury in Sam Houston State’s 24-10 win at Abilene Christian on Nov. 9, throwing for 260 yards and a touchdown.
“They’ve had some inconsistencies at the quarterback position,” Laird said. “In turn, that’s led to some inconsistencies at other positions.”
One thing that hasn’t changed for the Bearkats has been senior wide receiver Nathan Stewart, who leads Sam Houston State with 45 catches, 779 yards and six touchdowns. A 1,000-yard receiver in each of his first three seasons, Stewart remains a big-play threat as he has been since arriving at Sam Houston State.
“He’s been very productive and can get behind you in a hurry,” Laird said. “We have to know where he’s at and do a great job of avoiding the big play. He’s done that over the past four years against Southland Conference defenses. We have to keep things in front of us, and we’ve done that over the past couple of weeks. That will be a big key going into this week.”
Another key for Northwestern State will be to replicate the 60-minute effort it produced against Lamar.
The Demons closed that game by outrushing Lamar 101-8 in the fourth quarter and 130-12 in the second half, producing their largest margin of victory since a 27-point win against Grambling on Sept. 8, 2018.
“We just have to all do our one-eleventh,” Thompson said. “We have to dominate our one-on-one matchups like coach Laird said. We have to be ready do dominate our one-on-ones every play.”
Photo: Tanner Ash and Northwestern State face Sam Houston State, one of four teams tied atop the Southland Conference standings, at 12:05 p.m. Saturday. Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services