LAKE CHARLES – Turnovers bring with them momentum.
When the Northwestern State football team forced McNeese into two first-half turnovers Saturday afternoon, it controlled the momentum. When the Demons turned the ball over twice in an 81-second span in the third quarter, all that momentum went to the home side.
The host Cowboys turned those third-quarter miscues into 15 points, taking their first lead of the game and pulling away for a 30-20 Southland Conference victory.
“I’m disappointed for our guys,” second-year head coach Brad Laird said. “They battled. We come out at the beginning of the second half to get it to 20-9 and get a three-and-out defensively, so we had positives on both sides of the ball, but we weren’t able to sustain it. The turnovers we had – the interception and the fumble on the kickoff return – against good football teams, it’s going to be a battle for four quarters, and you can’t do that.”
The Demons (1-8, 1-5 SLC) led for the first 45:03 of the game before McNeese quarterback Cody Orgeron found Trevor Begue for a 3-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The second Orgeron-to-Begue scoring connection of the game came five plays and 2:41 after the Cowboys (6-4, 4-3) recovered a Myles Ward fumble on a kickoff return at the Northwestern State 17-yard line.
“With those two takeaways, we weren’t able to get (the momentum) back,” Laird said. “It was just 24-20, but we weren’t able to get any of the momentum back in the fourth quarter.”
Aside from D’Andre Hicks’ 96-yard kick return touchdown, Northwestern State put together one of its most complete halves of the season in the opening 30 minutes.
NSU limited the Cowboys to 120 yards in the first half, including 56 rushing yards on 25 carries. The Cowboys’ lone first-half touchdown came on Hicks’ kick return.
“We played all out,” said senior defensive end O’Shea Jackson, who finished with eight tackles and one of the Demons’ two sacks of Orgeron. “We were coming off the line every play.”
Because of that swarming nature and a pair of forced fumbles, the Demons built an eight-point halftime advantage on Jared West’s 9-yard touchdown run to cap the opening drive and Quan Shorts’ 22-yard touchdown catch that came wo plays after Ryan Reed recovered a Carlos Williams fumble.
“The way we practice, it’s second nature to come out here,” said junior receiver Kendrick Price, who tied Shorts for the team lead with five catches for a career-high 66 yards, including a 22-yard grab that helped set up West’s opening score.
“Sometimes in football, stuff goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. A couple of drives came up short, but that’s for us to go back and work on and be able to capitalize on those opportunities.”
The 4:02 span from Darion Dunn’s second interception of Shelton Eppler at the 3:59 mark of the third quarter until Orgeron’s scoring pass to Begue proved to be the final momentum swing.
It also magnified the special teams’ discrepancy between the teams.
While the Cowboys got a spark from Hicks’ return, the Demons saw a chance to extend their lead at the end of the first half.
Northwestern State moved 77 yards in 10 plays to attempt a 25-yard field goal with less than 30 seconds remaining in the first half, but Daniel Justino’s try was wide right, leaving the Demons with an eight-point lead at the half.
Justino did make two field goals during the contest (a 37-yarder and a 21-yarder), but the Demons cashed in just 13 points on four redzone trips.
Ward’s fumble on the kickoff return put the Cowboys in position to take their first lead, part of a second-half surge that saw McNeese score the final 21 points of the game in the game’s last 17:45.
Northwestern State outgained McNeese, 314-308, and saw Eppler establish school single-season records for pass completions (264) and attempts (418). However, the Demons were outscored 14-7 in points off turnovers, sparking McNeese’s second-half comeback.
“We have a chance to go up 20-9 at the end of the first half, and they have a kick return for a touchdown and we fumble on one,” Laird said. “That’s 17 points right there. Against good football teams, that’s tough to overcome. Our guys battled for 60 minutes, and I can’t take that away from them. There are little things in all three phases we have to go back and clean up to come out on the other side of this.”