NATCHITOCHES – The Northwestern State football team lived out the “Never Yield” motto Thursday, cutting into Stephen F. Austin’s 27-point lead throughout the latter stages in the Battle for Chief Caddo.
But the Lumberjacks produced crucial stops in the fourth quarter and held off a Demons rally as NSU fell 32-20 in the season finale.
The Demons (3-9, 3-6 Southland Conference) sliced SFA’s edge to 12 points early in the fourth quarter with a Jared West 10-yard touchdown run.
But the Lumberjacks (3-9, 3-6 SLC) recovered a fumbled punt that took away an NSU opportunity and made a goal-line stand at the 6-yard line to get a win in a series in which NSU had won three of the last four.
NSU coach Brad Laird pointed to first-half miscues as the Demons fell behind 27-0.
“It’s very disappointing to not come out with the W, but we can’t dig ourselves in that hole early,” Laird said. “In the second half, we didn’t have the opportunity to overcome that.
“SFA made some plays in all three phases. We really appreciate the 22 seniors and what they’ve meant to this program.”
Quarterback Shelton Eppler, one of 22 seniors who played their final game in Turpin Stadium, led the NSU rally as the Demons scored two second-half touchdowns to slice a 25-point lead to 32-20 with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter.
Before West’s 10-yard touchdown run, Eppler connected with Quan Shorts for 19 yards and Tanner Ash for two catches and 61 yards, including a 53-yarder.
Eppler moved past Laird to become NSU’s career passing leader (6,226 yards) and total yards leader (6,276) in just two seasons.
He threw for 333 yards on 27-of-50 passing with two touchdowns and two turnovers.
“First of all, I want to give all the glory to my Lord and savior,” said Eppler, who teared up when thinking about his time with this senior class at NSU coming to an end. “I’m going to miss my 21 brothers that I get to stand beside. I love every person in that locker room with all my heart.
“(The records) don’t mean anything right now, I just wish we would have pulled this one out for the underclassmen so they can have momentum into next season and for all the seniors who are graduating with me.”
Eppler owns 18 NSU records and tied another one with his pair of touchdown passes, which ties Zach Adkins with 28 in a single season.
After SFA extended a 20-point halftime lead with a Storm Ruiz field goal and a safety on a sack fumble, NSU started the second-half comeback with a 71-yard drive.
Eppler connected with senior Quan Shorts on a 15-yard touchdown strike, denting SFA’s lead to 32-14.
Shorts finished the season with 100 catches after his nine-catch, 132-yard effort Thursday. He became just the second receiver in Southland Conference history to reach 100 catches in a season despite battling turf toe for the last month. His 11 receiving touchdowns this season (second in NSU history) and 13 career touchdown catches (fifth) occurred in just two seasons.
But a muffed punt in the middle of the third quarter, and the Demons’ four incompletions from the 6-yard line stifled a comeback that threatened to cut the SFA advantage to single digits.
Cornerback Shemar Bartholomew kept the Demons alive with a goal-line interception after the muffed punt, his second pick of the night, third in two games and fourth of the season.
After SFA scored 27 points in the game’s first 20 minutes, the Demons defense stiffened to allow just a field goal from the offense.
“I just was doing my job, and the coaches trusted us to make plays,” Bartholomew said. “I felt like we could have come out much better in the first half, but we made adjustments and came out on fire in the second half.
“We’re going to work hard in the offseason, and we’re going to come out with a bang next year.”
In the first half, SFA cashed in momentum-changing special teams and defensive plays to build a 27-7 halftime lead.
All three of the Lumberjacks touchdown drives were aided either by an NSU turnover or an SFA special teams highlight.
SFA turned an Eppler fumble into a 7-yard Thomas Hutchings touchdown run to stretch its lead to 10-0 midway in the first quarter.
Kicker Storm Ruiz made field goal attempts of 54 and 43 yards, but the Lumberjacks successfully faked a field goal on a drive that ended in a Josh McGowen 20-yard touchdown run. The Jacks led 20-0 early in the second quarter after the 46-yard drive, which was set up by a deflected punt.
SFA recovered an onside kick on the ensuing possession, and SFA quarterback chunked a 55-yard touchdown pass to Xavier Gipson on the next play to surge to a 27-0 edge.
NSU finally got a spark from Bartholomew, who intercepted a Self pass in SFA territory.
Kendrick Price hauled in a 15-yard touchdown from Eppler to slice the SFA lead to 27-7. Price has five touchdown catches this season, all in the last six games.
The Demons had a chance to further close the gap late in the second quarter after senior Blake Stephenson recovered a fumble forced by Ja’Quay Pough.
But SFA forced Eppler’s second turnover of the half when JaTerious Evans intercepted a pass at the goal line. Evans also deflected the punt which led to SFA’s second touchdown.