For the first time this season, the Northwestern State football team had an opponent right where the Demons wanted them.
But a combination of NSU breakdowns and a strategic shift by Incarnate Word allowed the Cardinals to overcome a 14-point second-quarter deficit for a 45-31 Southland Conference triumph Saturday afternoon at Benson Stadium.
UIW (3-2 overall, 2-1 in the Southland) punted on three of its first five possessions but never again, scoring on the next six. NSU (0-5, 0-3) rang up efficient touchdown drives of 72, 40 and 75 yards on three of its first four opportunities, but didn’t get a first down on its next three as the Cardinals rallied into a 21-all tie early in the third period.
Quarterback Trent Brittain, who ran for three scores and threw for two more, put UIW on top for the first time with 23 seconds left in the third quarter with a 1-yard sneak capping a 13-play, 66-yard drive.
The Cardinals took command over the next six minutes. On the third play of the final quarter, a deep throw by
NSU starter J.D. Almond was intercepted by UIW safety Robert Johnson, who was falling backwards to the ground at his own 30. Two snaps later, Brittain ran the option left, cut upfield and breezed in untouched from 47 yards away for a 35-24 advantage.
Looking for a spark, NSU switched to another sophomore quarterback, Joel Blumenthal, but after an 11-yard throw to Cody Jones on his first play, the Demons couldn’t convert a fourth-and-inches at their 36. The Cardinals rolled downfield for a 7-yard Brittain TD toss to John Oglesby, opening a 42-24 margin.
The Demons bounced back when senior Daniel Taylor burst free over the right side and dashed 51 yards for a score with 8:26 left. Again, UIW methodically moved downfield, using 10 plays and 5:36 off the clock to produce a 37-yard Cody Seidel field goal with 2:54 remaining.
Third-team quarterback Stephen Rivers, who had a 12-yard pass preceding Taylor’s long TD, steered NSU 77 yards to the UIW 1 in the final minute, but the Demons were stuffed for a two-yard loss on first down and Rivers threw three incompletions to curtail their comeback bid.
“It’s like a laundry list of little things that added up into big things,” said Demons’ coach Jay Thomas. “Our inability to get short yardage offensively, second and third and short. Not stopping them on second and third down and long consistently, and then not stopping them at all in the second half. Sometimes their guy beats your guy up front, and there was some of that. We certainly made calls as coaches we’d like to have back that they were able to exploit.
“You have to give them credit. They adjusted to our pressures that were hurting them, went with two tight ends and went heavy, and there’s not many pressures you can bring against that personnel. Then, we’ve got to win more individual battles and tackle better than we did,” he said. “Hat’s off to them for taking control. They didn’t turn it over, they began to get good first down yardage, and we could not get a play made to stop them,” said Thomas.
UIW held possession for 19:33 of the final 30 minutes and posted 15 first downs after halftime.
Explosive plays of 20 yards or more, an Achilles’ heel for the NSU defense all season, were again damaging: the Cardinals had six, scoring on three, as they ran for 219 yards and threw for 259.
But NSU had its best start of 2015, pushing the offensive tempo successfully to go up 14-0 on a 10-yard Chris Jones run and a 1-yarder by Taylor on its first two series. When De’Mard Llorens, a 98-yard rusher on 20 carries, tallied on a 1-yarder 9:41 before halftime to make it 21-7, all systems were on go.
UIW cut the gap in half 26 seconds before halftime, with a 1-yard Brittain keeper capping an 11-play, 70-yard march. Unknowingly to Thomas and the Demons, that’s when the tide began to turn.
“We were feeling good at halftime, with a seven-point lead, getting the second-half kickoff, the way our offense was moving,” he said. “But we went three-and-out and it flipped field position. Then they got on top, we weren’t able to get a stop, so we went for fourth-and-inches trying to keep the drive alive, and didn’t get it done. All of a sudden the boot was on the other foot.”
NSU was discouraged but didn’t fade away, giving Thomas some solace for the seven-hour bus ride home.
“Our guys battled back, to where we had an opportunity if we had scored with a minute to go, to get an onside kick and we’d have a shot at the end of the game. We didn’t get it done. Now we have a long week off to try to figure out what we need to do to get this going like it was in the first half today,” he said, considering next weekend’s open date.
“It couldn’t come at a better time,” said Thomas. “We are going to hone in on what we can do and how to solve what’s ailing us. We saw two quarters of pretty good Demon football today. We’ve got to play four.”