Goalline stand redirected Demons’ path from disaster to dominance

PIVOTAL DEMON:  Senior defensive end Isaiah Longino (right) tackles a Lamar runner in the Demons’ Southland Conference win last Saturday. (Photo by CHRIS REICH, Journal Sports)

By JASON PUGH, Special to the Journal

NATCHITOCHES – Down 10 points to Lamar early in the second quarter of last Saturday’s game, the Northwestern State football team was in a precarious situation, with the Cardinals first-and-goal at the Demons’ 7.

NSU had yet to threaten to score, or sustain any offense. Lamar had just returned an interception to the 7, on the verge of opening a 17-0 advantage over a 0-3 team whose confidence and capabilities were in doubt to most anyone outside the program.

But after a five-yard run on first down, Lamar didn’t convert. The Demons denied four plays – including recovering from an offside flag on the initial fourth-and-1 – in an impressive and inspiring goalline stand.

Instead of falling behind 17-0, less than 3 minutes of game time later, the Demons had driven 98 yards and produced the first of three straight touchdowns. That unanswered burst turned a double-digit deficit into an 11-point lead.

Northwestern State continued to control play in the third quarter, opening a 35-13 bulge  entering the final period and containing the Cardinals afterward to record a 35-27 win in NSU’s Southland Conference opener.

“I think we’re going to look back at that five-minute stretch as this year goes forward and see how important that was,” said fifth-year head coach Brad Laird, whose Demons host Nicholls (0-4, 0-1) at 3:30 p.m. (ESPN+) Saturday at Turpin Stadium in the Demons’ annual #ForkCancer game.

The foundation for the pivotal goalline stand — punctuated by Isaiah Longino’s tackle for loss on Lamar’s second fourth-and-goal opportunity — was laid in  Montana, Shreveport and Mississippi.

That’s where the Demons played during a season-opening, three-game stretch of games away from Turpin Stadium. While the results were alarming – outscored by a 158-31 margin – NSU made the most of opportunities to learn, and to bond as a team, which paid off in those challenging times before halftime last Saturday.

“We’re more like brothers than a team,” said junior cornerback Cedric Anderson, who collected his third career interception against Lamar. “When brothers get after each other, there’s a little back and forth. Then you settle down and think, ‘Oh, he was right. I need to pick my stuff up.’

“Through the first three weeks, we didn’t hold each other accountable enough. We realized that, and we turned it around.”

Accountability was a key word for Longino following the victory, but controlling emotions was a common theme he shared with Laird, whose steely determination throughout the season’s struggling start impressed his players.

“(Laird) preached for us to stay level,” Longino said. “Be in the game like a boxer. Boxers go into their rounds and they may get punched in the face, or they may get some big hits. They may knock their opponent down or get knocked down. Then they go to their corner, and they’re calm and collected regardless of how things are. That’s what we decided to do.”

The Demons also checked off a couple of items on Laird’s to-do list – overcoming adversity and managing emotions.

“We’ve talked about it throughout the first three weeks,” Laird said. “Early on against Grambling, we got so emotionally high. We’re throwing into the end zone to go up 14-0 on our second possession. Then adversity hit (an interception, sparking six straight scoring drives by the Tigers), and we crashed. Since then, whether it’s good or bad, we’ve talked about handling emotions.”

While handling adversity and remaining calm seemingly go hand in hand, so did the momentum shift following NSU’s goalline stand.

Those moments led not only to the Demons’ first win of the 2022 season, but produced a rediscovered dose of confidence and sense of identity.

“This (past) week, we got to show our true colors on who we are,” nose tackle Maurice Campbell II said postgame. “The first three weeks didn’t define us. We talked about it as a team. None of that defined us.

“We got things rolling early (against Lamar). I still feel like we have things to overcome the rest of the season, but this win was long overdue.”

Contact Jason at pughj@nsula.edu