Demons rally once again in 2nd half, win 35-23 at SFA for season-ending 3rd victory in 4 games

NSU 5 Shelton Eppler
#NeverYield has not only been the 2018-19 hashtag for Northwestern State athletics, but it’s notably been how the Demons football team has rolled in its late-season surge in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Thursday night, NSU got a kickstart opening the second half, a 94-yard kickoff return touchdown by redshirt freshman Myles Ward, igniting a “flat” squad and launching a rally from nine down to a 35-23 season-ending victory over rival Stephen F. Austin.

The win was the first at SFA since 2008 for NSU, ending its first season under head coach Brad Laird with three triumphs in the last four games, with the only loss by two points on the road. The Demons (5-6 overall, 4-5 in the Southland) mounted comebacks in each of those contests, outscoring the Lumberjacks 28-7 after halftime to win the annual Battle for Chief Caddo, the largest trophy in sports, for the second straight year.

The hill to climb Thursday night could have been much steeper if not for a remarkable effort by NSU’s Purple Swarm defense with its backs close to the goalline. The Demons staged two goalline stands, stopping SFA (2-8, 2-7) at the 2 early in the game and at the 1 late in the third quarter to retain a 21-16 lead.

While the Demons had a nightmarish first half offensively, suffering four turnovers – three interceptions, two on balls deflected into midair downfield – the Purple Swarm limited the Lumberjacks to field goals of 43, 22 and 32 yards, along with the goalline stand, after those miscues. SFA’s 16-7 halftime advantage was not nearly what it could have been.

Then in 14 seconds, the Demons’ deficit was all but erased. Ward, who sustained a thigh bruise in last week’s 37-34 double overtime upset of 18th-ranked McNeese, didn’t expect to play, but his replacement, senior Rashaun Croney, was shaken up in the first half and Laird called upon Ward to resume his kickoff returner duties.

“I knew we needed something to get us going,” said Ward. “I saw the hole, took advantage, and it worked out great.”

“What a dynamic play, a game-changing play, by Myles Ward and our kickoff team,” said Laird. “We were flat coming out in the game for some reason, and I really didn’t do a good job at halftime to get us going. That lit the fuse for us.

“These guys will battle. They’ve done it all year and they’ve become really good at it here in the last month.”

The Demons took the upper hand on a pair of touchdown connections between receiver Jaylen Watson, one of 13 NSU seniors, and junior quarterback Shelton Eppler. In its second offensive series, Northwestern was punted down at its own 3, but quickly marched 97 yards in seven plays, with Eppler hitting Watson for the last 20 midway through the third quarter.

Then just over two minutes into the fourth, on NSU’s first snap of the final period, Watson ran a post pattern, took a rocket from Eppler near midfield and outran defenders for a 75-yard score, his 10th receiving TD of the year, tying Al Phillips (1968) for second in school history behind teammate Jazz Ferguson’s 13.

SFA used a 49-yard end-around pass to set up its only second-half score with 8:44 remaining, a 5-yard run by Dominic Williams, but the Demons immediately responded. Junior Jared West bolted 51 yards on the first play, and capped the six-snap, 62-yard drive with a 5-yard scamper to reopen the 12-point advantage with 5:25 remaining.

NSU opted not to score at the end of the game, after taking over on downs at the SFA 6, running out the final 2:20 on four snaps.

The Demons ran for a season-best 182 yards, with West getting 98 on 20 calls and sophomore Stadford Anderson adding 88 on 19 tries. Eppler went 8 of 11 after halftime for 156 of his 295 passing yards, finishing 20 of 31 with the three first-half interceptions but the pair of second-half TDs to Watson, who had a career-best 123 yards on four grabs.

NSU got 11 tackles from junior safety Ryan Reed and 10 by junior linebacker Dylan Wilson, while the Purple Swarm notched five sacks, two each by senior end Obinna Iheoma and sophomore nose tackle Damian Thompson. The Demons had nine tackles for lost yards, with junior O’Shea Jackson adding a pair to those by Iheoma and Thompson.

Meanwhile, Eppler was sacked just once and NSU had only two negative yardage plays until the final snap, when Eppler trotted backwards 10 yards and ran off the last two seconds.

All that remained was for the resilient Demons to race behind the north end zone and reclaim Chief Caddo after another against-all-odds comeback, this one successful on the road after a near miss erasing a 20-point hole at Abilene Christian two weeks earlier in a 49-47 defeat.

Senior offensive lineman Frank Boudreaux explained why he and his teammates #NeverYield.

“It’s just that fight,” said Boudreaux. “We know we have talent, we know we have athletes, and we have great confidence in our coaches. When stuff doesn’t go our way, we know we can even it out and come out with the win at the end.

“Not every senior (at NSU) has had the privilege of going out like this, beating McNeese and then winning at SFA. I think I’m at peace with my career. I feel great about it,” he said, “and I’m looking forward to seeing what goes on here in the future.”