By Doug Ireland
After coming up short in two intense battles against nearby foes who played postseason games last season, the Northwestern State football team won’t leave home until next month as it kicks off Southland Conference competition.
The Demons begin the nine-game conference schedule in Turpin Stadium Saturday evening at 6 against Lamar (1-1). They have an open date Sept. 23 before playing host to Southeastern Louisiana (0-2) Sept. 30.
NSU fell 23-10 Saturday night at Grambling, getting only two scores out of five trips into the Tigers’ side of the field.
Pivotal fourth-period interceptions, missed tackles and dropped passes have damaged the Demons’ chances in their non-conference losses at Grambling and Louisiana Tech, teams that had a combined 20-6 record in 2016.
The outcomes have been bitter disappointments, but the performances and effort reinforced coach Jay Thomas’ conviction that his fifth NSU squad is on the verge of a breakthrough.
“We’ve played two really good football programs. We knew it was a tall order to go on the road against them, but we battled them for four quarters, played our guts out, just didn’t make enough plays to come home happy,” he said. “We’re close. We’ll keep working, adjusting, polishing to get this done right.
“You have to tip your cap to Grambling. Coach (Broderick) Fobbs has done a great job here. We won’t see any better back than we saw tonight (running back Martez Carter, 201 yards rushing and receiving). He’s an NFL-level player, and their quarterback (DeVante Kincade, 231 yards passing on 13-20 aim) is a very impressive player too. It was a challenge trying to defend those two guys.”
Carter took a swing pass 60 yards to the NSU 5 on the game-opening snap, shaking free of defenders at the line of scrimmage and racing down the Tigers’ sideline before NSU’s Ike Warren caught him. Two plays later, Grambling went on top to stay.
NSU’s ground game was ineffective, with running backs Chris Jones and Jared West able to post just 73 yards while quarterback J.D. Almond was sacked four times and lost 31 yards. Almond went 21 of 34 passing, with his only interception coming at the Grambling 19 with 11:49 left after the Demons took advantage of a partially blocked punt and started their possession at the Tigers’ 42, trailing 20-10.
““It was an opportunity to steal the momentum and get right in position to win the game down the stretch. You’ve got to cash in those situations, especially when you’re playing really good opponents, and instead, they made the play,” said Thomas. “There was still time but they got a couple of first downs and flipped field position to make it really tough on us.”
Thomas relishes the chance to dive into Southland competition.
“A whole new season starts for us next Saturday, and it’s the one we work for all year long, to win a Southland Conference championship, to get to the playoffs. These guys just have to taste victory. They’ve got reach out, snatch it and walk away with it. I think we’re going to be good when we get over the hump. We’ve shown signs that we can be a really good team.”
Senior receiver Bobby Chan-Chan and junior defensive tackle Zak Krolczyk concurred.
“This is no time to hang our heads,” said Chan-Chan, who had 56 yards on three receptions. “We’re going to take this game, learn from it, let it go and get ready for Lamar.”
“We’re better (than last year) as a unit, and I think we’re on the verge of something real good when the pieces fall into place,” said Krolczyk, who had a 13-yard sack. “I think we’re ready for conference and we’re excited to get it going at home.”
The Cardinals rallied past the Demons 32-31 last season in Beaumont, scoring twice in the final two minutes to win.