CHARLESTON, Illinois – Two weeks in a row, the Northwestern State football team fought its way back from a double-figure deficit to find the win column.
Their third try in as many weeks fell just short Saturday afternoon at O’Brien Field.
Northwestern State trailed by 28 at halftime before pulling within eight points of host Eastern Illinois in the fourth quarter. The Panthers snuffed out a last-gasp push by the Demons, intercepting Zachary Clement with 19 seconds to play to preserve a 35-27 victory.
“We fought in the second half,” fifth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “As we go back and look at the full 60 minutes, we know what type of football team we are – the team that played the way they should in the second half. We’ve got to look and see what the issues were at the beginning of the game. Those are things, when you start like that, it starts with me. I’ve got to get that corrected.”
The Panthers (2-3) set the first-half tone from their opening possession. After forcing the Demons into a three-and-out, EIU needed just five plays to cover 62 yards with quarterback Jonah O’Brien finishing the drive with the first of his two first-half rushing touchdowns.
O’Brien and fellow quarterback Dom Shoffner each rushed for a pair of first-half touchdowns as the Panthers built a 28-point lead at the break.
Eastern Illinois rushed for 254 yards in the first half before the Purple Swarm defense clamped down in the second half.
The Demons (2-4) limited the Panthers to 93 second-half yards but EIU had done its damage.
As the Purple Swarm began to round into form so did the Demon offense, which had managed only Zachary Clement’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Zach Patterson in the first half.
That combination was much more productive – as was the Demon offense as a whole – in the final 19-plus minutes of the game.
Following Kevin Davis Jr.’s first career interception that gave the Demons the ball at the EIU 40, Clement capped an eight-play drive with a 14-yard touchdown run to slice the lead to 35-14.
“We’re a never-say-die team,” Clement said. “We’re going to push ourselves and keep fighting until that clock runs out. That’s the mentality we want. We tried to come back today, but we didn’t have enough. It will make us better.”
Clement established career highs in completions (37) and attempts (59) – both of which stand as top-five single-game marks in NSU history.
His 37 completions are the second-highest total while his 59 attempts stand third.
Twelve of Clement’s completions went to Patterson, a speedy East Mississippi Community College transfer who’s second touchdown grab of the game – a 17-yarder with 4:44 to play – pulled NSU within eight.
Patterson’s 12 grabs were one shy of tying the school record of 13, which has been accomplished four previous times, last by Ed Eagan in 2015 against Abilene Christian.
The scoring grab gave Patterson his first career multiple-touchdown game.
“We’ve got to start faster each and every game,” said Patterson, who established a career high with 167 receiving yards. “We need to get the defense on their heels and make them play our game instead of playing their game.”
The Demons outgained Eastern Illinois 397-388 but lost the turnover battle 3-1, marking the fifth time in six games NSU has been on the wrong end of that stat.
“There were guys who stepped up,” Laird said. “Look at both Zachs, the way they threw and were catching it. Other guys in the receiving core – Stanley King and Javon (Antonio). I thought the protection from the offensive line was better in the second half.
“Coming out of the gate, they scored on four straight possessions with the defense being put in bad positions a couple of times. We just didn’t get the stops, but in the second half we made those stops to give ourselves a chance.”
The Demons return to action Oct. 15 when they travel to Houston to face Southland foe Houston Christian. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.
PHOTO: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services