Is NSU a contender? Southland showdown today in Texas

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS:  Zachary Clement and his Northwestern State teammates travel to Texas A&M-Commerce hoping to emerge as a contender, not a pretender, in the Southland Conference race. (Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State)

JOURNAL SPORTS

COMMERCE, Texas –  The Northwestern State Demons start November with a litmus test Saturday.

Are they contenders, or not, in the Southland Conference football race?

With three games left, the Demons (3-0 in the standings) come out of their week off  leading the league by a half game over a trio of teams – Texas A&M-Commerce, Southeastern and UIW – all of whom NSU will face in the final three weeks of the season.

But the Demons’ three wins have come over the bottom-feeders in this year’s race – comeback wins over Lamar and Nicholls, and finally, a dominant win, 37-10 at Houston Christian.

That sprint to the end of the season and a possible Southland Conference title begins in earnest when the Demons make their first trip to Commerce in 40 years. Today’s 2 p.m. game can be seen on ESPN+ and free streaming audio is available through www.NSUDemons.com and the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded free for Apple and Android devices.

“I remember playing against Commerce in the mid-90s,” fifth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “A lot of people don’t realize we’ve played 28 times. A lot of people think this is a new team on the schedule – and we haven’t seen them since 2008 – but there is a lot of history that goes back a long time ago, back to 1927.”

The Demons (3-5, 3-0) and Lions (5-3, 3-1) were tied atop the Southland standings before visiting UIW handed Commerce a 35-7 defeat a week ago.

That snapped a four-game win streak for the Lions, who defeated Southeastern 31-28 on Oct. 8 in their Southland Conference debut. The win at SLU started a three-game conference win streak for Texas A&M-Commerce, which is in its first season of transition from Division II to the FCS level.

“Pretty much every team in this conference has the ability to win on any given Saturday,” Northwestern State running back Scooter Adams said.

The Demons are 3-0 in Southland play for the first time since 2002.

Northwestern has shown the ability to recover from tough losses as two of its three conference wins have come following a non-conference defeat – the Sept. 24 Lamar win came after a loss at Southern Miss while NSU’s Oct. 15 win at Houston Christian came on the heels of an Oct. 8 loss at Eastern Illinois. Now NSU hopes to bounce back from a 51-16 thrashing at Homecoming by nationally-ranked Southeast Missouri on Oct. 22.

There has been no secret to what has helped the Demons recover from adversity.

“We never look ahead,” senior cornerback Trey Williams said. “We can only focus on the task ahead of us. That’s what we always do.”

Laird preaches the gospel of preparation throughout the week, and despite what potentially lies ahead of the Demons, that has not changed this week.

But for Laird and a cast of fifth- and sixth-year seniors having the opportunity to prepare for a potential program-altering stretch is reason enough to continue that preparation.

“You feel for those young men who have been through the highs and lows to be able to be in this situation,” Laird said. “To have the opportunity their last year – especially the ones who have been here six years – is special. Trey’s one of those. He’s seen the highs and lows and been through adversity.

“He’s going to walk out of here with great memories on the field and a degree. When he got here six years ago, I don’t know if there was light at the end of the tunnel, but now there is for him.”

The light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for the Demons was a well-timed bye week that came after an eight-game run that featured five road trips.

“The way everything played out, I don’t know if you could have asked for a better time for an open date,” Laird said. “We are as healthy as we can be eight weeks in. We have a couple of guys who are hurt, but we got a lot of guys rest for the stretch run.”