The Northwestern State football team hasn’t counterpunched effectively this season, until Saturday night.
That helped the Demons surprise Lamar 48-35 to delight a Homecoming crowd of 9,133 at Turpin Stadium, picking up their first win coming out of an open date and after a disappointing fade in a 45-31 defeat at Incarnate Word on Oct. 3.
NSU dominated early, building a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, then weathered the Cardinals’ comeback efforts. Lamar couldn’t get on a roll against a revamped Demons’ defense. After the visitors (3-3 overall, 2-1 in the Southland Conference) scored their first three touchdowns, they couldn’t sustain their success, losing the ball on a fourth-down stop and two punts to keep NSU in command up by at least two scores.
“We were able to answer, and that’s what I really liked,” said Thomas Sunday evening after reviewing game tape. “We got out to a strong start for the second straight game, and this time we bounced back well when things went well for the other team. It was a total team win in all phases.”
The Demons (1-5, 1-3) topped their season averages for scoring and total offense building a 31-14 halftime lead with one of the more productive halves in school history, posting 347 yards. NSU finished with season highs on the scoreboard and in yardage (479) while playing keepaway down the stretch.
“The most complete performance we’ve had offensively, against good competition,” said Thomas. “It started up front, where we’ve been pretty good in spurts but were really good all night. We finished blocks aggressively. We protected the quarterback well. We gave extra effort. You could see the sense of urgency and determination.”
Senior transfer Stephen Rivers went the distance at quarterback after struggling in NSU’s season opener, but rebounding in productive appearances at Mississippi State and UIW. After two seasons with LSU and last year at Vanderbilt, Rivers posted his first two college touchdown throws, going 15 of 21 for 197 yards, and notched his first win in his third career start, including this year’s opener, in his first-ever start-to-finish college game.
“Stephen did a nice job. He was cool as a cucumber, managed the game very well, executed the plan,” said Thomas. “We wanted to get some balls down the field, and we were able to catch them and get some pass interference calls. We got touchdowns to finish drives. We planned to play Joel Blumenthal but you don’t change what’s working really well.”
During the open date, before practices resumed the NSU defensive staff shifted from a base 4-3-4 scheme to a 3-3-5 stack and that move paid off handsomely. Lamar had allowed only one sack all season, including a competitive loss at Baylor and a win over third-ranked (FCS) Sam Houston State, but the Demons got a pair among four tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.
“We went to a different concept and it helped free up guys to make plays. We took them out of some things they like to do and we made big plays at critical times,” said Thomas. “We have the scheme in our playbook, work it in the spring and preseason so we can go to it as needed, and it was the right move at the right time.
“Was it pretty? No. We were displaced quite often. But we made more plays than we had, by far, in any other game. We got pressure on the quarterback, we got sacks and tackles for loss. Our effort was relentless.”
Along with the overall performance, which included strides on special teams, NSU admittedly got lucky to score two key touchdowns.
Just 13 seconds before halftime, the Demons went up 31-14 when an impressive 8-play, 68-yard drive in the final 3:40 was capped when Rivers’ throw to H-back Charles Vaughn was deflected and fluttered into the hands of nearby tight end Zach White.
In the first minute of the fourth quarter, the Cardinals were poised to draw within one score for the first time since the first period after a 69-yard drive had them second-and-goal at the 2. But star running back Kade Harrington, who scored all five LU TDs and ran for an NSU opponent-record 282 yards (36 carries), had a teammate (an in-motion receiver) bump into his elbow and knock loose the ball, which Demons’ junior safety Adam Jones scooped up and returned a school-record 95 yards for a commanding 41-21 advantage.
“We had the ball bounce our way a couple of times, finally. We were due. You don’t see either of those plays happen very often,” said Thomas. “The score at the end of the half was big, and the fumble return was a huge play, heads up by Adam but no doubt lucky for us. But you have to take advantage in those situations and we did.”
It combined to produce a joyful scene at game’s end.
“It’s good to see our guys smiling and celebrating. A lot of work all year long goes into these 11 games and to be in our situation, for these players and coaches to stay the course over these last two weeks going in against a good team, it was great to see that rewarded,” said Thomas. “Everybody was able to enjoy homecoming and that made it even better.”
The Demons head south the next two weeks, going to unbeaten McNeese Saturday night and visiting Nicholls on Halloween, before hosting Abilene Christian on Nov. 7.