NATCHITOCHES — There will be no playoffs for the Northwestern State football team.
But in the Demons’ final game of 2022 today at 1 o’clock in Turpin Stadium, there’s a chance – a slim one, but a chance – to share the Southland Conference championship.
With a massive upset of No. 5/7 Incarnate Word, NSU can claim a share of its first Southland title since 2004. It’s the first time since then the Demons have taken the field on the final playing date within a win of a conference title.
The game will serve as both Senior Day — with the Demons honoring 16 seniors in a pregame ceremony – and Military Appreciation Day.
The game will air on ESPN+ with free streaming audio available through www.NSUDemons.com.
“We have an opportunity to play for a co-conference championship,” fifth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “That is a credit to these players and coaches. We sat there after Week 3, trying to determine what is this team going to be about? Those players and coaches really flipped the switch and made a difference in what this team is going to be known for and what opportunities still lay ahead for this team.”
NSU’s fourth nationally-ranked opponent of the season is standing in the way of the Demons (4-6, 4-1) sharing the league title with Southeastern, which clinched a share of the title with a Thursday night victory at Nicholls.
SLU will get the Southland’s automatic playoff berth because it’s the only team to defeat UIW, and NSU. Whoever wins today’s matchup will be conference co-champions. UIW will surely receive an at-large playoff berth based on its dominant showing this fall.
The Cardinals (9-1, 4-1) bring the FCS’ top scoring team (51.6 ppg) and the top scoring margin in Division I (31.3 points) into Natchitoches.
“They’re a talented team, a disciplined team,” said sixth-year senior defensive end Isaiah Longino, who will play his final game as a Demon. “We have our work cut out for us, but everyone knows what’s on the line, what we’re playing for. We have to put it together. There’s no other choice. We’re down for the challenge. We accept it.”
The Demons have upset the Cardinals in two of their last three meetings, both times in San Antonio in high-scoring contests.
While the Cardinals score and score fast, the Demons’ Purple Swarm defense has shown the ability to fix itself in the course of a game throughout the season.
NSU enters the matchup having pitched back-to-back, second-half shutouts at Texas A&M-Commerce and Southeastern. The Demons also blanked Grambling and Eastern Illinois in the second half of matchups earlier in the year.
“It hasn’t always been about adjustments,” Laird said. “We’ve done our job better compared to just adjusting at halftime. This week will be important, as well, to start fast and get things going early. Adversity is going to hit. Sometimes it hits early. Sometimes it hits late. We have to take that adversity and switch it to momentum.”
The possibility of collecting the Demons’ fifth overall SLC football championship is a driving force for a team that has spent the previous 10 weeks learning how to play as one.
“Sticking together, not going down each other’s throats,” wide receiver Zach Patterson said of what has been behind the Demons’ turnaround after an 0-3 start. “At the beginning of the season, we wanted to point fingers. We had to come together as a team, not single one person out for not doing this or that. We had to come together.”
Because of that developing chemistry, the Demons have a chance to send 16 seniors out with a championship ring.
“I feel like I’ve been able to see the whole changing of the culture,” said Longino, a sixth-year senior who has been part of the program since the summer of 2017. “The last few years have not been the way we wanted. When I first came in, we had just come off a 1-10 season. My class had a lot of true freshmen who played. We were the ones trying to change things, shift things, bring discipline, bring intensity to practice.
“It’s only going to get better. To say I’ve seen the culture change completely as far as where we started – teammates not caring about each other to now being one full team and putting it all together for this – I’m happy to say I was part of the process.”