NATCHITOCHES – The Northwestern State football team was 3 yards away from breaking through in its 2019 season Saturday night.
Instead, the Demons came up one point short.
No. 13 Central Arkansas survived Northwestern State’s 2-point conversion attempt with 1:30 remaining, holding on for a 31-30 Southland Conference victory on NSU’s Homecoming night.
“I’m proud of the way we battled,” second-year head coach Brad Laird said. “Coming out of what happened after halftime, (UCA) took all the momentum. We continued to battle. We’re still going to talk about the consistency word, but this team battled for 60 minutes. To put the ball in the hands of our guys offensively to make a play to win the game, I’ll do it again.”
Shelton Eppler’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Akile Davis pulled the Demons (0-7, 0-4) within a point, and Laird did not hesitate to play for the win.
Eppler’s pass to Levar Gumms was knocked away, leaving Northwestern State down a point. Once the Demons were called for illegal touching on the ensuing extra point, the Bears (5-2, 3-1) used three rushes by D’erek Fernandez to run out the clock.
After starting slowly in two of its first three Southland Conference games, the Demons broke out quickly Saturday night, using a 12-play, 73-yard scoring drive capped by Jared West’s 2-yard touchdown run to open the game.
It marked the first time since the season opener at UT Martin that the Demons scored on their opening possession.
The Demons doubled the lead following the first of four Central Arkansas turnovers, a leaping interception by redshirt freshman Fred Lee. The four forced turnovers were a season high for the NSU defense, which held Central Arkansas to 89 yards rushing, the fewest allowed by the Demons this season.
Gavin Landry’s 54-yard, catch-and-run touchdown produced NSU’s 14-0 lead, the largest advantage built by the Demons’ this season. It was the longest catch of Landry’s career and marked the second straight week with a touchdown catch for the redshirt junior.
“(Defensive coordinator Mike Lucas) preaches it every week,” said senior safety Ryan Reed, whose goal-line interception kept the game tied at 24 in the third quarter. “We’re starting to get a feel for the ball. Everyone’s punching and starting to click midway through the season. Hopefully, we can get a few more big games like that this season.”
The Demons’ 14-point cushion stood until the Bears used a bit of trickery in the third quarter.
Following Hayden Ray’s 28-yard field goal to cap the opening drive of the second half, Ray chipped a kick toward the far sideline that Robert Rochell ran down, giving the Bears possession at the NSU 43.
Five plays later, Breylin Smith found a wide-open Carlos Blackman for a 5-yard touchdown pass that tied the game 24-24.
Thanks to plays like Reed’s end-zone interception, the game remained tied until the 13:20 mark of the final quarter when Smith found Lujuan Winningham (9 catches, 168 yards) in the corner of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown and the Bears’ first lead of the game.
As the Demons’ offense, which rolled up 251 first-half yards, stumbled in the second half, the NSU defense produced extra opportunities, beginning with Reed’s interception.
The NSU offense was unable to convert those extra possessions, turning the ball over on downs at the Bears’ 29-yard line following Reed’s interception and then again at the UCA 37 following William Hooper’s recovery of a Carlos Blackman fumble at the 6:55 mark of the fourth quarter.
“(Reed’s interception) was huge,” Laird said. “It showed our guys are continuing to battle, make the plays and gave ourselves a chance to win the game. We set out to win the football game, and we’re disappointed we didn’t. We’ll learn from what we did well. We’ll learn from our mistakes. This football team will continue to battle.”
The Demons dialed up their best drive of the second half at the right time, traveling 70 yards in 11 plays in 3:10 before Davis grabbed his fourth touchdown of the season and Eppler’s third scoring pass.
“We came out very hot with great momentum,” said senior receiver Quan Shorts, who posted his third straight 100-yard receiving game with 11 catches for 106 yards. “We just didn’t finish. The coaches called great plays. In practice, we hit those plays all the time. (Saturday night) we just didn’t hit them.”