By JASON PUGH, Special to the Journal
NATCHITOCHES – A goalline stand by Northwestern State’s defense unleashed a torrent of big plays for its offense Saturday afternoon in the Demons’ Southland Conference opener against Lamar.
Buoyed by those big plays, NSU built a three-score lead and held off the visiting Cardinals, 35-27, at Turpin Stadium, securing the Demons’ first win in a conference opener since 2018, and their first victory after three lopsided losses this season, all on the road.
“We have a lot to play for,” said senior defensive lineman Isaiah Longino, whose fourth-down tackle for loss sealed the pivotal second-quarter goalline stand. “We understand our problems. We knew we were missing tackles. We weren’t being physical. We had to flip the switch this week.”
Lamar (0-4, 0-1) sprinted to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, scoring on its opening drive after going 3-for-3 on third downs, including Nick Yockey’s 8-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Dummett to open the scoring.
That was Lamar’s lone touchdown until the fourth quarter, thanks in large part to Longino and the Purple Swarm’s defensive line.
Trailing by 10, the Demons (1-3, 1-0) stood tall after Kristian Pugh returned an interception to the NSU 7 on the penultimate play of the first quarter.
The Purple Swarm bowed its collective back, stopping Lamar three times inside the 1-yard line, including one that was negated by an offside call.
Longino and Ronnie Caldwell combined for the final stop, dropping RJ Carver for a 1-yard loss on the second fourth-and-goal.
“Coach always tells us when we come of the field, ‘Bow up. You’ve got to bow up,’” defensive tackle Maurice Campbell II said. “It’s a sudden change. We’ve got to get the offense the ball back. That’s what we did. They didn’t score.”
From there, the Demon offense ignited, scoring touchdowns on three straight drives before running out the final 58 seconds of the half.
Following the goal-line stand, the Demons followed new starting quarterback Zachary Clement on a nine-play, 98-yard scoring drive that Javon Antonio culminated with a 49-yard, catch-and-run score after Clement scrambled wide right and found Antonio free near the Lamar sideline.
Clement went 28-for-49 for 366 yards and a career-high-tying three touchdown passes. He added 51 rushing yards, including a 35-yard touchdown run that capped NSU’s 21-point run in the second quarter.
Clement was 3-for-3 passing on third down for 83 yards and a touchdown on the drive.
“You saw some big plays on third down not only with his arm but also with his legs,” fifth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “That prompted us to get some rhythm and momentum late in the first half to lead us to victory.”
Clement established a career high in passing yards for the second straight week after throwing for 214 in three quarters of work at Southern Miss on Sept. 17. His 366 yards are the sixth-most in school single-game history and the second-most by a Demon quarterback in a game at Turpin Stadium.
His 49-yard pass to Antonio opened the floodgates for chunk-play touchdowns. Northwestern averaged 46.4 yards on its five scoring plays Saturday.
The shortest of the Demons’ scores was a 13-yard pass from Clement to Antonio over the middle with 6:41 to play in the second quarter, giving NSU a 17-10 lead it never relinquished.
Playing his first home game since April 1, 2021, Antonio caught a season-best nine passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. It was the fourth 100-yard receiving game of his Demon career, which covers nine games.
“The coaches were telling us, ‘It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s going to get there,’” Antonio said. “I was looking at the O-line, and they were looking at me. I said somebody’s gotta step up and make a play. I was that guy today. Props to the O-line for holding up the line of scrimmage.”
As the Purple Swarm built on its second-quarter stop, the Demon offense went into big-play mode again in the third quarter.
First, Clement found Scooter Adams all alone in the middle of the field for an 80-yard touchdown pass before Kennieth Lacy ended the third quarter with a career-long, 55-yard scoring run.
Buoyed by Lacy’s career-best 83 yards on the ground, the Demons rushed for 179 yards on just 20 carries, averaging nearly 9 yards per tote. Those numbers came despite starting the game with 27 consecutive passing plays.
NSU’s first rush came on third-and-15 from its 32, trailing 10-7. Clement scrambled for 15 yards to keep alive a drive that ended with his second scoring connection with Antonio.
“Seeing them stop those guys, especially after a turnover like that, it really gave us confidence,” Clement said. “We’ve been telling each other all week, ‘We’re going to pick each other up.’ We’re going to pick up the defense when we need to, and they’re going to pick us up.
“I’ve never been part of (27 straight passes to open a game). We threw it a lot today, but it worked for us.”
While the Demons dominated the middle part of the game, Lamar closed to within a score on a 16-yard pass from Michael Chandler to Major Bowden with 1:52 to play.
However, NSU recovered the ensuing onside kick and punter Scotty Roblow pinned Lamar deep after a three-and-out to secure the Demons’ first home-opening victory since a 34-7 blasting of Grambling in 2018.
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Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State