By JASON PUGH, Special to the Journal
HAMMOND – The Northwestern State football team built its best Southland Conference start in three-plus decades in part by winning the third-down battle, slowing opposing offenses.
The Demons could not find that same success Saturday afternoon at Southeastern Louisiana. The 25th-ranked Lions halted NSU’s four-game conference win streak with a 23-7 victory at a chilly Strawberry Stadium.
Third-down success by SLU, and failures by Northwestern, were pivotal.
“That was the big thing on both sides of the ball,” fifth-year Demons’ coach Brad Laird said. “We weren’t able to convert any third downs and keep drives alive, and they were – especially in the first half. That put us in a hole.”
Southeastern (7-3, 4-1) built a 23-point halftime lead by rolling up 313 first-half yards, more than the Demons (4-6, 4-1) had surrendered in three of their first four conference games.
The Lions converted 7 of 11 third-down tries in the first half against a defense that had held its conference opponents to 35 percent on third downs.
NSU, meanwhile, went just 2 for 8 in the first half on third-down tries, half of its 49-percent success rate in its first four Southland games.
The Lions converted three third downs on their opening drive, a 13-play, 91-yard march that Carlos Washington Jr. capped with a 3-yard scoring run on third and goal.
Although the Purple Swarm defense allowed more than 300 first-half yards, it tightened up when backed up, holding Southeastern to a trio of field goals following the Lions’ opening touchdown.
The Lions’ defense, however, stifled the Demon offense throughout.
NSU managed just 209 yards total offense, nearly 200 fewer than its season average. The Demons went into halftime scoreless for the first time since the season opener at then-No. 2 Montana.
“We weren’t able to execute in all three phases,” Laird said. “That started from the get-go. We never got anything going – never got any momentum. We didn’t create any of that. When you go on the road in these kinds of games, you’ve got to do that and our team wasn’t able.”
The Purple Swarm was more effective in the second half, shutting out the Lions in the second half thanks to forcing three turnovers.
Linebacker Jared Pedraza collected his first career interception midway through the third quarter.
“They had run the same play earlier,” Pedraza said. “They tried to run a drag underneath. I started sinking, saw the ball and grabbed it.”
But on the next play, Southeastern took it right back as Donniel Ward-McGee intercepted a Zachary Clement pass at the SLU 41.
While Northwestern established a modest season high in turnovers collected, the Demons were able to convert only once off a Southeastern miscue.
NSU turned JaQuon Lott’s forced and recovered fumble into their lone score of the day. Clement hit tight end Travon Jones for a 31-yard catch-and-run touchdown late in the third period.
“We created three (turnovers) and only had one we scored off of,” Laird said. “Whenever we get those takeaways, we want to turn them into points.”
Although the loss stopped NSU’s Southland Conference win streak at five — dating to a win at McNeese in the 2021 season finale — the Demons can still share or win outright their first conference title since 2004.
The Demons host Top 10-ranked UIW at 1 p.m. next Saturday in the regular-season finale at Turpin Stadium.
Should Nicholls shock Southeastern next Thursday night, the winner of the UIW-NSU game will be the outright conference champion. Should the Lions defeat the Colonels, the UIW-NSU winner would share the championship with SLU, which would get the league’s FCS playoff berth.
“We had a chance to win a share of a conference championship, and it sucks losing like that,” Pedraza said. “I got hurt and wasn’t able to help the defense at the end. We worked so hard and put in so much time and effort.
“We have a chance again next week against UIW. This loss will help us play better next week. We’ll come ready to work (Sunday) and get ready for next Saturday.”
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