For all the high-flying numbers the Northwestern State offense has put up across the past two seasons, the Demons turned back the clock Saturday afternoon.
And in Brad Laird’s eyes, it was beautiful.
“We have the ball with about five and a half minutes, and they have all three of their timeouts,” Laird said. “Five minutes and 26 seconds. They never got the ball back. Sam Houston, playing for the conference championship, never got the ball back. The way the offensive line and offense finished, and the way the defense played the second half was great to watch live.”
NSU’s methodical clock-draining drive sealed the Demons’ 31-28 victory against the Bearkats, who entered the game in a four-way tie for the Southland Conference lead and left on the outside looking in on the title race.
It also continued a strong second half of the season that has produced three wins in a four-game stretch that began with a 44-41 overtime win at Incarnate Word on Oct. 26. At that time, UIW was tied for the conference lead before the Demons found their finishing kick in San Antonio.
That run has continued, mostly interrupted, because of a renewed sense of how to close out games with the Demons doing so in different ways. A week ago, it was by pulling away from Lamar with three touchdowns in the final 16:09 in the game.
The final points of Saturday’s win against Sam Houston State came with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter when record-setting quarterback Shelton Eppler walked into the end zone from 5 yards out for his first career rushing touchdown, part of a 31-yard rushing day for the NSU signal caller.
“Eppler did a great job of moving in the pocket, creating yardage with his feet,” Laird said. “They were selling out to stop everybody but Shelton on that touchdown run. Great job by him reading it and pulling it. He has the ability to get those sneaky three- to four- or six- to seven-yard gains that, when you look back through four quarters, are big plays in a game.”
The second-half slugfest would not have been possible without the Demons’ defense tightening up after a slow start.
Sam Houston State scored on each of its first two possessions, covering 112 yards on 18 plays. From there, the Purple Swarm limited the Bearkats to 247 yards and seven points in the final 51:38 of the game, including 138 second-half yards.
Northwestern State forced Sam Houston State backward on three of those second-half possessions with none being more important than what became the Bearkats’ final offensive possession of the game. Three plays after taking possession at the Demons’ 33, the Bearkats found themselves punting from the NSU 41 because of a key play by sophomore linebacker Jomard Valsin.
“Jomard had the sack fumble that they recovered, but it forced them out of field goal range,” Laird said. “That was huge. They all made so many other plays by simply running to the football.”
From Valsin’s late sack fumble to Shemar Bartholomew highlighting NSU’s four-interception day with a 96-yard pick-six that gave NSU a 24-21 halftime lead, the Demons’ defense set up its offensive counterparts for the coup de grace, putting NSU on a two-game win streak heading into Thursday night’s season finale against Stephen F. Austin in the annual Battle for Chief Caddo.
“You look at how the end of the game happened,” Laird said. “This is what is beautiful about this win. They punt it to our 1, and Stadford (Anderson) gets about four or five yards on the first carry and we get to the eight before we punted. It wasn’t a great punt, but Jomard got the big sack fumble to get them out of field goal range. Then Stadford has 31 yards on that final drive, converting on short yardage. You could hear the offensive line in the huddle on the sideline when Sam Houston was using its timeouts. They knew the situation. They kept saying, ‘We need one more first down. We need two more first downs.’ To have 110 yards rushing against that group that was giving up around 70 a game, we want to continue that momentum going into the short week.”
Photo: Running back Stadford Anderson (left) was a key reason the Demons were able to grind out the final 5:26 of Saturday’s win at Sam Houston State. Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services