The Northwestern State offense started quickly in the second “preseason game” of fall camp Saturday morning.
The way the Demons’ defense answered had second-year coach Brad Laird in high spirits.
“The offense started fast, especially that first drive,” Laird said. “But I was proud of how the defense responded. They really settled in over the next couple of drives and forced some punts and some three and outs. The consistency is something we’ll continue to talk about and work on in all three phases.”
Behind quarterbacks and Shelton Eppler, the Demons passing game opened Saturday’s approximately 75-play scrimmage by connecting on 10 of 14 passes on its first three drives. Included in that stretch was Rivers’ 57-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Tyler O’Donoghue, who outran the Demons secondary to complete the catch-and-run scoring play.
The touchdown was one of three thrown by Rivers, who finished the “preseason game” 7-for-9 for 142 yards.
“I felt like (being healthier) set the tone,” said quarterback Shelton Eppler, who completed eight of his first 10 passes before finishing 8-for-14 for 51 yards. “The offense looked really good with Bryce Rivers. He connected with a lot of different receivers. He looked good. Kaleb (Fletcher) looked good. Zach (Clement), too. It was fun to see them compete.”
After O’Donoghue’s big play, the Demons defense settled in and disrupted the offense for the next couple of drives before Rivers and Quan Shorts sparked a four-play, 55-yard touchdown drive by connecting twice for 37 yards, including a 6-yard scoring connection between the sophomore quarterback and senior receiver.
Playing in his first scrimmage of camp, Shorts led 12 different Demons’ pass catchers with four grabs. His 50 total yards were the second-most on the day, just behind O’Donoghue’s 57.
The defense put together a couple more stops and slowed the offense for the majority of the second half of the scrimmage, which lasted approximately 90 minutes on the sun-splashed Turpin Stadium turf.
The Purple Swarm recorded five sacks, including a pair by Jomard Valsin Jr., who totaled five sacks in the two “preseason games.”
“I felt good about it,” said senior safety Nick Forde, who had one of the five sacks and one pass break-up. “We were flying around, which is what you want to see on the last scrimmage of camp. Camp is all about fighting through adversity. That’s what you want to see. You have long hours at the fieldhouse, long hours in the head. We didn’t see anyone give up. We had guys fighting through all three weeks.”
The quartet of Demons’ quarterbacks finished 19-for-33 for 218 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions as the NSU offense did not commit a turnover Saturday.
The NSU defense had a couple of chances to snare interceptions, most notably William Hooper, who jumped a receiver screen inside the 15-yard line but could not corral the ball.
“Those are types of opportunities you have to take advantage of,” Laird said. “Those don’t fall in your lap every day. You have to make that play. That’s why these practices are so important. The opportunities you have on the Saturday mornings will give you those opportunities on Saturday nights.”
The Demons heeded Laird’s call to clean up their mental focus for the second scrimmage with officials calling penalties.
After tallying nine penalties a week ago, NSU nearly halved that total, being called for five infractions.
“The thing I thought I saw, and I hope I see it on film, is the effort and attitude,” Laird said. “We can be consistent with that, because we control that. Hopefully, when I watch the tape, I’ll see that we limited our mistakes. I keep up with penalties (on the field), and our (limiting) pre-snap penalties was great. That’s something we had to get better at. We have some other things penalty-wise we have to correct moving forward, but the guys took a step forward in the things we talked about.”
The Demons return to practice Tuesday afternoon as they move into more of a game-week situation in preparation for the Aug. 29 season opener at UT Martin.
Photo Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services
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