BATON ROUGE – In the nearly filled Tiger Stadium drenched in LSU purple and gold, Northwestern State’s purple-clad fans were making all the noise early Saturday after the Demons led the No. 4 Tigers after the first quarter.
Senior receiver Quan Shorts capped an impressive first quarter with a 17-yard touchdown catch from senior quarterback Shelton Eppler with 16 seconds remaining, building a 7-3 edge over LSU.
The Tigers kicked into gear and scored touchdowns on its next three drives and eventually pulled away from the Demons, 65-14, but NSU (0-3) pressured an LSU team (3-0) with national championship designs throughout the first half and into the second half.
“We were focused on how this team would respond Sunday through Friday, and we showed what we can do when we prepare with the right mental focus,” said NSU coach Brad Laird, referencing how his Demons would rebound from a loss to Midwestern State this past week. “This team got better, and even though the scoreboard doesn’t reflect the outcome we wanted of going 1-0 this week, this team responded positively.
“We had a different focus tonight. We had a great Saturday night in Baton Rouge, and we owe a huge thanks to our fans, our band and the Natchitoches community.”
Sophomore tight end David Fitzwater escaped detection as Eppler found the wide open sophomore for a 26-yard touchdown to slice LSU’s edge to 17-14 in the second quarter.
Fitzwater said catching a touchdown in Tiger Stadium will be a lasting memory in front of an announced attendance of 100,334 fans, the largest to watch an NSU football game.
“It’s an amazing feeling, and I’m glad I have the opportunity to be here with my teammates,” Fitzwater said. “I was wide open, and I was nervous being that wide open.
“The ball was floating in the lights, and I’m glad (Eppler) gave me the opportunity to catch it. It was fun. It was surreal for us to be in a battle with LSU after working all week the way we need, and we showed what we could do.”
Down 24-14, senior cornerback Dylan Wilson intercepted Heisman hopeful Joe Burrow to set up the Demons on the LSU 17-yard line late in the second quarter. Wilson produced his first career interception and nearly had a second in the second half.
“I wish I could have scored it, but it was cool and fun,” said Wilson, a Gretna native. “I broke on the ball after they got me on the play before, but I knew it was coming back to me.
“We know what we can do, and we know we can play against anybody in the (Southland Conference). This performance was a great boost to our team.”
Eppler, who threw for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, nearly connected with Shorts on another touchdown strike, but NSU couldn’t connect on the field goal attempt to further cut into LSU’s lead.
NSU’s touchdowns are its first in the series (12th meeting) between the two in-state programs, and also the first time NSU has led the Tigers in program history.
LSU hadn’t allowed a touchdown to trail an FCS opponent since Furman took an early lead in 2013.
NSU’s 14 points is its most against a Power Five opponent since 2007 when the Demons scored 31 against an Ed Orgeron-coached Ole Miss squad.
Orgeron is a former NSU defensive lineman who also got his coaching start in Natchitoches.
The Demons started quickly with three first downs on its first drive, pushing to the LSU 35-yard line before a fourth-down pass fell incomplete. NSU, which didn’t get a first down until late in the second quarter against Midwestern State this past week, gained 40 yards on the initial possession (24 passing and 16 rushing).
NSU’s defense bowed up in the red zone on LSU’s opening drive, holding the Tigers to a Cade York 26-yard field goal.
The Demons outgained LSU 114-102 and controlled time of possession 10:25-4:35 in the first quarter.
LSU revved its engine in the final three quarters, scoring touchdowns on seven of nine drives until the fourth quarter. LSU had seven touchdown drives of three minutes or less.
Burrow passed for 373 yards on 21-of-24 with two touchdowns and an interception in two-and-a-half quarters.
Eppler finished with 225 yards on 21-of-38 passing as he posted his eighth career game with multiple touchdown passes in his two seasons.
Shorts led NSU with eight catches for 66 yards, while Fitzwater produced a team-high 68 yards on three catches.
The Demons gained 200 of their 278 yards in the first half. LSU gained 610 yards, but NSU held the Tigers to 122 rushing yards.
NSU starts Southland Conference play Saturday at Houston Baptist.
PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services