Slow start plagues Northwestern State in SLC-opening loss at Houston Baptist

HOUSTON, Texas – Through three games of the 2019 season, the Northwestern State football team was a first-half team.

That version of the Demons did not show up Saturday night at Husky Stadium.

Northwestern State cracked the second-half scoring column for the first time in 2019, but it was not enough to atone for a sluggish first-half performance in a 48-21 loss to Houston Baptist in the Southland Conference opener for both teams.

Houston Baptist (3-1, 1-0) used a big-play offense to build a 24-0 halftime lead, using a pair of interceptions to keep the Demons (0-4, 0-1) off the scoreboard for the first time in the opening 30 minutes of a game this season.

“It was disappointing from a team aspect,” second-year head coach Brad Laird said. “We looked forward to this opportunity to start conference and be 1-0. We had so much to build off, and not just the first half at LSU. The way we prepared that week. The preparation was good. Give Houston Baptist credit, first and foremost, but we have to go back and look in the mirror, starting with me.

“These guys are going to work hard. We’re going to continue to work hard in the coming week.”

The Demons had a golden opportunity late in the first half to cut into the Huskies’ 21-0 lead.

One play after a Demon drop in the end zone, HBU’s Brennan Young stepped in front of a Shelton Eppler pass at the 2-yard line and returned it to midfield.

The Huskies did not convert that turnover into points, but HBU tacked on a 33-yard field goal by Gino Garcia with :48 left in the half to build a 24-0 halftime lead.

Houston Baptist came into Saturday’s game leading the Southland Conference in passing yards per game (386.3), but it was the Huskies’ running game that pushed them to a fast start.

Ean Beek (131) and Dreshawn Minnieweather (112) became the first pair of Houston Baptist rushers to surpass 100 yards rushing in the same game, and both played key roles as HBU built a 14-0 first-quarter lead.

Minnieweather had 52 yards rushing on HBU’s opening drive of the game, which culminated with a 12-yard scoring pass from Bailey Zappe to Jerreth Sterns. On the Huskies’ next drive, Beek broke free for a 52-yard touchdown run to double the lead.

The Huskies finished with 266 rushing yards, more than 100 yards above their average entering Saturday night’s game.

“They made the plays,” Laird said. “They won the one-on-one battles. The first drive, they had two significant runs and a long run on the second drive to pop out there 14-0. In the second half, we tried to get some momentum. We tried to work back. We weren’t able to continue to gain that momentum. We’d gain it and give it right back.”

After Houston Baptist opened the second half with a 60-yard touchdown drive culminated by Sterns’ 9-yard touchdown pass to Ben Ratzlaff on a gadget play, the Demons responded with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that Jared West finished with a hard-charging, 10-yard touchdown run.

West ran for a season-high 80 yards as the Demons tallied a season-best 146 yards on the ground.

“We came out real flat, so we needed to establish the run quickly,” West said. “We had a good week of practice with the O-line. Tight ends, receivers, everyone did their job. It was up to me and Stadford (Anderson) to run hard, and we did that.”

West’s scoring run ushered in a streak of three touchdowns in as many drives for the Demons as Shelton Eppler connected with Akile Davis on a pair of touchdown passes, giving the BYU transfer his first two scoring grabs as a Demon.

Northwestern State’s best second-half performance of the season, however, came after the Demons dug themselves too big a hole to overcome as NSU dropped its Southland opener for the first time since 2016.

“The first three weeks, we talked about how we weren’t able to come out in the second half,” Laird said. “(Saturday night), we weren’t able to start well offensively. We got going in the second half. Up front, we had guys banged up, but I thought guys like Parker Fink and Brody Griffin really came in and played well up front.

“One thing I saw was our guys outside blocking, guys like Quan Shorts. There’s a lot of things to build off, but it’s frustrating to end 60 minutes the way we did. We’ll go back to work and overcome this.”