When the Demons’ 2-point conversion attempt fell to the ground with 1:30 to play in a 31-30 loss to No. 13 Central Arkansas, it left Northwestern State still searching for its first win of the season.
“It was very disappointing for the guys to come out on the other side of where we wanted to come out,” second-year head coach Brad Laird said. “That was a situation with a minute to go in the game that was 100 percent my call. I made that call, and I will make it again to win the football game.”
Although the Demons were unable to convert the 2-point play that would have put them ahead with 90 seconds to play, Northwestern State took some steps forward against their third straight nationally ranked opponent.
The NSU defense played much like the Purple Swarm moniker that has been attached to it for the past few decades. Starting with redshirt freshman cornerback Fred Lee’s first career interception to end the Bears’ first drive of the game, the Demons notched a season-best four turnovers, the first two of which the NSU offense turned into 14 points.
The Demons were unable to convert two second-half Central Arkansas turnovers into points.
“They played great,” Laird said of the defense, which held Central Arkansas to 89 yards rushing and 388 total yards. “They got put in some bad situations and fought to get out of them. They had a bad situation with the pooch kick at the (NSU) 43 and later on the (NSU) 5 when Ryan Reed had the interception. It was good to see the takeaways. (Defensive coordinator) Coach (Mike) Lucas has stressed that, and you like to see that come to fruition like it did (Saturday) night.”
The early turnovers helped the Demons build a 10-point halftime lead, but for the second straight home game, NSU hit a third-quarter lull that allowed the visitors to swing momentum to the opposing sideline.
After Central Arkansas tallied a field goal on the opening possession of the second half, the Bears gambled and recovered a pooch kick at the Demons’ 43. Five plays later, Breylin Smith tossed a game-tying touchdown pass.
While it was a freshman who started the Demons’ run on turnovers, it was a senior who made one of the biggest plays. Two plays after Robert Rochell returned a Shelton Eppler interception to the NSU 6, Reed stepped in front of Smith’s pass at the goal line and collected his first interception of the season.
“We were up coming out of the half, and they made some plays,” Laird said. “The next thing you know, it’s 24-24. Then we get the interception. Our guys did not quit. They did not quit fighting all the way to the end.”
That attitude made it clear to Laird he had an easy decision after Eppler capped an 11-play, 70-yard drive with a 9-yard scoring pass to Akile Davis with 1:30 to play.
Instead of playing it safe, Laird made the call to attempt the 2-point conversion to take the lead. An incomplete pass left the Demons one point short on the scoreboard, but Laird said there were lessons learned the Demons will carry with them in the final five games of the season, beginning Saturday afternoon at 4 at Incarnate Word.
Laird said: “It’s disappointing to not come out with the victory, but to see them fight day in and day out, down after down, you know because of that, this thing will come out on the other end.”
Photo: Fred Lee (16) prepares to make his first career interception against Central Arkansas on Saturday. Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services