NATCHITOCHES – The Northwestern State football team was looking for a fast start in Saturday night’s home opener against former Southland Conference rival Stephen F. Austin.
Instead, it was the visiting Lumberjacks who broke quickly from the gate, cashing in NSU mistakes for a three-score lead less than seven minutes into the game and setting the tone for a surprising 41-7 romp at Turpin Stadium.
“There were a lot of things that we went through this week ahead of kickoff that we need to do better – coaches and players,” a terse sixth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “The big play we gave up the third play of the game – that was something we talked about avoiding. That has hurt us the first two weeks. The next two possessions we had turnovers offensively that turned into points. No matter who you play, you can’t overcome that.”
Stephen F. Austin (2-1) needed six plays to traverse 75 yards on the game’s opening possession – 58 of them coming on a third-down run from Jerrell Wimbley that turned a third and five at the SFA 30 into a first and 10 at the NSU 12.
Three plays later, SFA quarterback Brian Maurer capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.
The Lumberjacks doubled their lead four plays later after a fumbled punt snap – for the second straight week — that Amad Murray returned 25 yards for a touchdown.
The fumble was part of a six-turnover game that saw Northwestern State (0-3) lose the turnover battle 6-1.
Stephen F. Austin converted the six turnovers into 24 points, including a 53-yard touchdown pass from Maurer to running back Anthony Williams, who had a 103-yard receiving day to complement Wimbley’s 115 yards on the ground.
“Everyone’s got to look in the mirror, coaches included, and make sure everybody’s doing their job,” Laird said. “We’ll make sure those who are going to stay doing their job will be with us moving forward.”
Down 21-0, the Demon defense kept NSU’s pulse going by holding the Lumberjacks off the scoreboard for three consecutive drives bridging the first and second quarter.
The NSU offense, however, was unable to convert as it committed four turnovers and punted four times on its eight first-half drives.
Northwestern avoided the shutout when Quaterius Hawkins found Jaren Mitchell for a 20-yard touchdown pass with 14:37 to play in the game.
It was Hawkins’ first touchdown pass as a Demon and Mitchell’s first scoring grab at Northwestern State. Hawkins, a Grambling transfer, entered the game twice after starter Tyler Vander Waal exited because of injuries.
“I got a better feel for it this week, got a little more comfortable in the pocket,” said Hawkins, who went 7-for-19 passing in his most extensive playing time as a Demon. “We had a couple of miscommunications and a lot of turnovers. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The Demons enter their bye week and host Eastern Illinois on Sept. 30, then start Southland play next month. Vander Waal’s status will be a key storyline next week as his second injury, to his throwing shoulder, appeared to be significant.