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College football: NSU dominates Grambling State; Demons get first win for new head coach Laird

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Matt Vines
NSU Assistant Director of Communications

NATCHITOCHES – Northwestern State’s offense propelled the Demons to an early lead Saturday, and the defense made sure Grambling couldn’t mount a comeback.

The Demons logged the first win of the Brad Laird era in convincing fashion, topping the Tigers 34-7 in front of a raucous crowd of 13,525 in Turpin Stadium.

Junior quarterback Shelton Eppler flashed what NSU’s fast-paced, big-play offense is capable of by leading the Demons (1-1) to touchdowns on the first three drives of the game.

Then the defense did its best imitation of its “Purple Swarm” nickname, forcing five turnovers and causing a turnover on downs while holding Grambling (0-2) to 349 yards, under 300 until GSU’s final drive.

“It’s fun to watch this team execute after we talked about it since Thursday (against Texas A&M),” said NSU coach Brad Laird. “We got into a rhythm in the first quarter and were able to sustain drives, really enabling us to get off that fast start we were looking for.”

“(Defensive coordinator Mike Lucas) talks about turnovers all the time, and we forced five tonight and didn’t commit one ourselves. This is a great day to be a Demon with the atmosphere throughout the day and seeing this community really step up and support us.”

Eppler and senior quarterback Clay Holgorsen split playing time, combining for an NSU record 35 completions while compiling 359 passing yards. NSU just missed a single-game passing record, which Holgorsen set (381 yards) against McNeese this past season.

Eppler completed 24 of 31 passes for 263 yards and had all four of NSU’s passing touchdowns. Holgorsen chipped in 96 yards on an efficient 11-of-14 passing. NSU totaled 35-of-45 passing in the air (78 percent).

“It’s great when you have an offensive line that does its job and receivers to make plays,” said Eppler, who played for two years in offensive coordinator Brad Smiley’s scheme at Trinity Valley Community College. “Grambling is a tough team, but we got rolling and got the job done.

“Knowing (Smiley’s) calls and what our game plan was in different situations really helped me. We still have a lot to work on, but it felt great and looked great tonight.”

Four different Demons caught touchdown passes, including scoring grabs by Jaylen Watson (20 yards), Jazz Ferguson (13 yards) and Da’Von Smith (12 yards) on NSU’s first three possessions as the Demons sprinted to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter.

NSU’s first three drives traveled 73, 65 and 34 yards as the Demons rolled up 504 offensive yards.

The Demons successfully attacked the edges with quick passes on a Grambling defense known for its interior strength.

“We were able to sustain drives early, and we didn’t have a set amount of time that we’d stay with one quarterback,” Laird said about Eppler playing the first three series. “Eppler had the hot hand, and both quarterback’s completion percentages were great.

“Eppler is really good in our run-pass option attack, and we got the ball to guys who could make plays for us.”

Six different NSU players had at least 25 receiving yards with Ferguson (74 yards on seven catches), Watson (55 yards on seven catches) and Quan Shorts (78 yards on six catches) leading the group.

Safety Hayden Bourgeois intercepted the first of his two passes on GSU’s first drive in Tiger territory.

“We’re taught that any time you have an opportunity to make a play, you go make it,” Bourgeois said. “We were really aggressive tonight.

“It feels great to get Coach Laird his first win and to get a win in the home opener. This was awesome, and I’m excited for this season.

Grambling stayed within striking distance (21-7) when running back Kevin Dominique scored from six yards out at the beginning of the second quarter.

The Tigers rushed for 208 yards with quarterbacks Aldon Clark and Geremy Hickbottom combining for 103 yards.

But NSU responded just before halftime with a Levar Gumms 10-yard touchdown from Eppler to build a 27-7 lead.

West added a three-yard touchdown run on the first drive of the second half for the game’s final score.

West rushed for 87 yards and added 26 receiving yards on a pair of catches.

Defensive back Rashaun Croney stifled GSU’s momentum with an interception in the end zone to start the second half. The Demons bled 6:04 off the clock on a 14-play, 74-yard drive ending in West’s touchdown to ensure victory.

Other turnovers included interceptions by Ryan Reed and an O’Shea Jackson fumble recovery, both in GSU territory.

Defensive lineman Jalon Sangster had a team-high nine tackles with a sack, one of four on the day with nine other quarterback hurries.

Linebacker Isaiah Longino tallied seven tackles and two sacks while Reed added eight tackles to his interception.

The 27-point win is NSU’s largest against a Division I opponent since 2014 when the Demons beat Nicholls 48-21.