Eying share of Southland crown, Demons visit No. 25 Southeastern

ON THE RUSH: Isaiah Longino (left) chases down Southeast Missouri quarterback Paxton DeLaurent during the Demons’ Oct. 22 non-conference game in Natchitoches. (File photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State)

By JASON PUGH, Special to the Journal

HAMMOND – Brad Laird started his fifth year as the head football coach at Northwestern State by asking his 2022 team the same question he does every year.

“Everybody’s going to remember the 2022 football team, no matter what happens,” Laird said. “How are they going to remember it? That’s the question we get the opportunity to answer every Saturday.”

The Demons can write a portion of a fairytale ending this afternoon in Strawberry Stadium when they face No. 25 Southeastern at 4 p.m. The game will air on ESPN+ with free streaming audio available on www.NSUDemons.com and the Northwestern State Athletics mobile app, which can be downloaded free for Apple and Android devices.

On the line for the Demons? The first of two straight shots at a share of their first Southland Conference championship since 2004.  NSU is in sole possession of first with a 4-0 mark in the league with two games left, but with two ranked teams ahead in SLU and No. 7 UIW at home next week.

“We’re continuing to write that book,” Laird said. “That book’s not finished. It will be interesting to see how the ending will be. Saturday is another chapter in the book.”

It is a chapter rife with opportunity for the Demons (4-5, 4-0), who have won their first four conference games for the first time since 1988.

The immediate benefits of a win would be a title share and a shot at an outright conference title in the Nov. 19 home finale against Top 10-ranked UIW.

The down-the-line ramifications are even greater.

“It most definitely is a legacy game,” said senior defensive end/linebacker Jomard Valsin. “It shows the work that needs to be put in (to be successful). We’ll leave a blueprint of what needs to be done for them to follow.”

Valsin can speak from a position of experience. A fifth-year senior, Valsin has been a productive part of the Demon program since 2018, collecting 230 career tackles (33.5 for loss), 13 sacks, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.

Those stats came as the Demons compiled a total of 12 wins in Valsin’s first four seasons. Now Valsin and his teammates – old and new – can etch their names in Northwestern history with a win Saturday.

“For the guys who have been here as part of the highs and lows – a lot more lows than highs – it’s great to see them have the opportunity to make their mark,” Laird said.

Standing in the way of a Hollywood ending for the Demons is a 6-3 Southeastern team that moved back into the national rankings and sits a game behind NSU in the SLC standings at 3-1.

It is a Lion team that is more than familiar with NSU – Saturday’s meeting is the fourth between the teams since March 13, 2021 – and features a couple of ties with NSU on the coaching staff.

Former Demon quarterbacks coach Anthony Scelfo is SLU’s wide receivers coach and pass game coordinator while record-setting Demon quarterback Bryce Rivers is an offensive analyst.

“There is a lot of history with (head) coach (Frank) Scelfo,” Laird said. “Frank is a good friend. Anthony was on our staff. I hired him when I became the head coach here. There are guys on that staff we know personally. It makes it even more fun. You know when you play them, you better be ready to play for 60 minutes. Our guys will be.”

The Demons enter the game coming off their largest margin of victory of the season, defeating Texas A&M-Commerce, 41-14, a week ago.

It marked the second straight road game in which the Demons jumped to a quick lead, following a 24-point, first-quarter eruption at Houston Christian on Oct. 15.

In the span of one minute of game time at Commerce, the Demons saw their 14-0 lead evaporate. NSU responded by scoring the final 27 points of the game to stoke their chance at a Southland Conference championship.

“This time of year, you keep winning and the next one gets bigger,” Laird said. “For us, I go back to when we started conference. We decided we’re playing one week at a time. This one happens to be the next one on the schedule. It’s big because of what’s happened in the past. It’s important for us to prepare to be at our best on Saturday.”

Contact Jason at pughj@nsula.edu