By JASON PUGH, Special to the Journal
CHARLESTON, Illinois – The Northwestern State football team finds itself in unfamiliar territory in multiple ways today.
The Demons (2-3), winners of two straight and on top early in Southland Conference play, face Eastern Illinois (1-3), a team they have not met since 1993 when current head coach Brad Laird was a sophomore quarterback.
Laird threw for 142 yards and a touchdown and added a 2-yard rushing touchdown in the Demons’ 34-26 victory at O’Brien Field on Nov. 6, 1993.
“I remember it snowed,” Laird said. “We were out there for pregame and it started with the snow flurries. By the time we came back out, it really had been snowing. I believe we ended up winning, but the quarterback from Northwestern State didn’t have a great game throwing the ball.”
Laird’s current quarterback, Zachary Clement, has had two standout games in the Demons’ two straight wins.
Clement has thrown for 693 yards and six touchdowns in his first two starts of the season, leading Northwestern over Lamar and Nicholls.
Two of those touchdowns came in the final 94 seconds against Nicholls last Saturday as the Demons erased a 12-point deficit.
“The thing about that position, in those situations – two-minute situations or three minutes left down two scores – the moment wasn’t too big,” Laird said. “He was the same way at the end of the game that he was at the beginning of the game. That’s important at that position. What you’re seeing over the last couple of weeks are some big third-down conversions. We were 12 of 23 on third downs and four of five on fourth downs. That’s a testament to this football team being able to sustain drives offensively.”
Through three games, the Demons had converted just 12 of 53 third-down tries, a 23-percent success rate. Since then, NSU has been successful on 22 of 40 third downs (55 percent).
Defensively, the Demons are the No. 2 red zone defense in the Southland Conference, allowing opponents to score on 74 percent of their red zone chances.
NSU has been even stingier when it comes to red zone touchdowns, allowing 13 scores on 23 opportunities – a success rate of 43 percent.
“It’s an attitude,” sophomore linebacker Jared Pedraza said about the Purple Swarm’s red zone performance. “We’re taking the identity of (defensive coordinator) coach (Weston) Glaser. It’s a mentality. We don’t want them to score. We want to keep them out of the end zone.”
Saturday’s non-conference matchup puts the Demons in a unique spot in terms of recent schedules.
Non-conference games against Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri on Oct. 22 – NSU’s homecoming – mark the first time since 2017 the Demons see their Southland Conference slate interrupted by non-conference foes.
“The Ohio Valley Conference has a great history of success,” Laird said. “It will be fun for our conference to step in and play some games against those schools. It’s a different matchup to see a team we haven’t played since 1993.”
Much like the Demons, the Panthers have made strides from the 2021 season. Eastern Illinois’ 35-21 win against Murray State in its OVC opener on Sept. 24 matched EIU’s win total from a year ago.
“You look at some of their scores – whether it’s playing an FBS school (Northern Illinois) or Chattanooga, who was ranked 10th – you see games they were in,” Laird said. “They had an open date last week, but beating Murray State two weeks ago, you saw them put some things together. They became more consistent that game than the previous two or three.”
Kickoff is 2 p.m., with game coverage on ESPN3. Free streaming audio is available on www.NSUDemons.com and the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded free for Apple and Android devices.
Contact Jason at email@example.com