For the first time this season, the Northwestern State football team scored first Saturday afternoon.
The Demons’ fast start they had been seeking, unfortunately, did not last against visiting ninth-ranked Southeastern as the Lions pulled away after a breakeven first quarter for a 51-14 Southland Conference victory at Turpin Stadium.
“We knew we had to get off to a fast start,” fourth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “Defensively, we did, forcing them to punt on two of the first three drives. Then offensively, our second drive we go down and score. When you have the opportunity – I say against Southeastern, but against any team in your conference – you have to sustain and finish drives.”
Northwestern State (1-6, 1-3) finished their second drive behind quarterback Zachary Clement, who made his first career start.
The freshman capped an 11-play, 70-yard drive with a 10-yard run that gave the Demons a 7-0 lead and marked the first time NSU put the initial points of the game on the board this fall.
It appeared the momentum would stay affixed to the home sideline of Turpin Stadium in short succession.
Two plays after Clement’s rushing touchdown – his fifth in the past four games – Taron Jones fumbled after an eight-yard gain and Nathalohn Nanai pounced on the loose ball at the Lion 33-yard line. After a video review, the fumble was overturned and the Lions (6-1, 4-0) maintained possession.
Seven plays later, reigning Walter Payton Award winner Cole Kelley bulled in from 9 yards out for the first of his four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) on the day.
“Sometimes things don’t go as you plan, and you saw the outcome,” said linebacker Jared Pedraza, who finished with a game-high 10 tackles. “(The overturned fumble) was bumming, because we thought we had it. We’re on the sidelines, in the chairs, thinking we have the ball, and they get it back and end up scoring. Things like that happen, and we have to stop them when we have the chance.”
Following SLU’s second-chance touchdown drive, Northwestern State forced the Lions to punt on their ensuing possession. After that, Kelley and the Lion offense came alive, scoring on six straight drives before running the clock out in the final quarter.
SLU also added a defensive touchdown on Justin Dumas’ 52-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.
The Lions kept several drives alive with third- or fourth-down conversions, going 6 for 10 on third-down tries and converting their lone fourth-down attempt.
On the biggest momentum-swinging drive of the game, Southeastern did not see a second down, let alone a third down.
With the Demons trailing 14-7, punter Scotty Roblow (4 punts, 51.5 yard average) pinned the Lions at their 4-yard line as LC Greenwood downed the ball.
Five passes from Kelley later, the Lions were up 21-7 after Kelley found Nolan Givan for a 26-yard score.
“They had some other big plays in the game, but especially on that drive, they hit big plays on us,” Laird said. “We weren’t able to get off the field, and it was a big momentum switch in the game. We got a good punt from Scotty, who was challenged this week to place his punts against a really good returner. He did a good job pinning that one inside the 10, but we couldn’t take advantage.”
While the Lions were successful on more than 63 percent of their third- and fourth-down tries, extending drives, the Demons went 6-for-16 on third downs and were 3-for-6 on fourth downs.
Laird took an aggressive tact throughout the game, knowing it would take more than field goals to secure a win against a top-10 team.
As such, the Demons saw three drives end in or near the red zone on downs.
“I knew we’d need seven points, not three, so that was my decision to go for it in the red zone,” Laird said. “We had a third-and-1 at the plus-10, and we lose two. It’s fourth-and-3 and we go for it and didn’t get any points. We just could not take advantage of the opportunities we had early on in the game.”
The Demons capped the scoring as Clement found Stanley King for a 45-yard touchdown for his first career scoring pass and King’s first touchdown catch.
In his first start, Clement rushed for a game-high 96 yards and threw for 206 with a touchdown and two interceptions.
“I’ve got to fix the little things,” Clement said. “I made some mistakes out there I shouldn’t have made. That’s what I’m going to work on this week in practice. I was excited to get that first passing touchdown, but I want to continue to grow and get better from here.”
The Demons return to action Oct. 30 at Nicholls, starting a stretch of three road games in four weeks to end the regular season. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. in Thibodaux.
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