Demons honor Caldwell’s memory, but can’t sustain surge against SLU

POWERFUL START:  Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Zachary Clement, a Northwestern State teammate last season of the late Ronnie Caldwell, kneels to end the game’s first play and places the ball on Caldwell’s No. 23 jersey to give him the ceremonial tackle opening Thursday’s game. (Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State)

The result of Northwestern State’s matchup with Southeastern on Thursday night was secondary to the fact the Demons were on the field.

Playing for the first time in 12 days – seven days after a shooting at an off-campus apartment complex killed junior safety Ronnie Caldwell – the homestanding Demons fell to Southeastern, 37-20, in Southland Conference play at Turpin Stadium.

“When we first met going into the week – we have a word of the week – and it was honor,” sixth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “When we talked about honor, you want to honor how Ronnie played the game. That was the challenge to our guys, seven days removed from a devastating situation for these young men and our coaches.

“We talked about honor in a lot of different ways. Honor your family. Honoring how they live their life each and every day. Yes, we had a football game to play seven days from that incident, but our biggest thing was wanting to come out and play how Ronnie would play. He played with great effort and had fun playing the game. That’s what I wanted our guys to do, and I was proud of our guys.”

The Demons’ early effort and execution offensively helped them keep pace with the Lions (1-7, 1-3), who followed an emotional first play of the game by scoring on a six-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Bauer Sharp’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Northwestern State (0-6, 0-2) and Southeastern began the game with Lions quarterback Zachary Clement, a former NSU signal caller, running 10 yards to Caldwell’s black No. 23 jersey and kneeling down, placing the football on the jersey.

“That first play, giving (Caldwell) the tackle, showed he was still with us,” said safety Cadillac Rhone, who honored his fellow safety by producing a team-best nine tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles. “We wanted to come out and honor him – play fast, play hard, play a 60-minute game. That’s what we tried to do.”

A little less than 17 minutes into that 60-minute game, the Demons had their lone lead of the game when Stanley King made a highlight-reel, one-handed grab of a 29-yard pass from Tyler Vander Waal to give NSU a 17-14 advantage.

It was King’s second career touchdown grab – both of which have come against Southeastern in Turpin Stadium. His first career scoring catch was a 45-yarder from Clement in an October 2021 matchup with the Lions in Natchitoches.

King’s scoring grab and a 2-yard Vander Waal rushing touchdown that answered Sharp’s game-opening score were sandwiched around a 38-yard Brett Money field goal to account for the Demons’ 17 points in the first 16:44 of Thursday’s game.

That strong start offensively allowed Northwestern State to roll up a season-high 396 yards total offense.

The Demons were unable to carry over the same offensive momentum in the second half as Southeastern used a pair of big-play scores – a 58-yard Victor Tademy interception return and an 81-yard Deantre Jackson run – to extend a four-point halftime lead and grab their first win of the season.

“I don’t think we understand what those young men have gone through,” Laird said. “To be able to come out and play this type of game – a fast, physical football game – that’s what I was most proud of. It didn’t always look pretty, but our guys they settled down and played with great effort and played in a way that would make Ronnie proud.

“I’m proud of our guys and how they’ve gone through this week. We’ll get together (Friday) morning and get on a bus Saturday to go to Ronnie’s funeral.”

The Demons return to action Oct. 28 when they travel to Lake Charles to face McNeese for the first time since the 2021 season finale. Vander Waal is likely out for the rest of the season after suffering a possible broken leg early in the fourth quarter on an attempted fourth-down conversion.