Home Sports College College football: NSU holds off Lamar in high-scoring SLC opener

College football: NSU holds off Lamar in high-scoring SLC opener

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Doug Ireland
Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director/Sports Information Director

BEAUMONT, Texas – Shelton Eppler destroyed Northwestern State’s single-game passing records with 474 yards and six touchdowns.

Lanky receiver Jazz Ferguson undoubtedly earned a place on the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 with a sensational one-handed stab along the Demons’ sideline, which gave him the opportunity to outrun a tortured defender for a tie-breaking 70-yard TD in the fourth quarter.

But a player who wasn’t even on the NSU roster when preseason camp began, junior college transfer defensive tackle O’Shea Jackson, really made the difference Saturday night by blocking the game’s final point-after try to preserve a one-point Demon edge with 2:38 left that held up for a 49-48 Southland Conference football triumph.

NSU (2-1 overall, 1-0 in the Southland) held off a furious rally by Lamar (1-2, 0-1), which trailed 28-0 six minutes before halftime in front of 6,021 at Provost-Umphrey Stadium. The Cardinals followed SMU transfer quarterback Darrel Colbert Jr. (137 rushing yards, three TDs; 263 passing yards, four scores) to tie the game twice, at 28 midway through the third quarter and at 35 with 13:03 remaining.

Both times, the Demons answered quickly – immediately with the score that put them ahead to stay, Ferguson’s mind-blowing catch and run. That came on the next play from scrimmage after Lamar’s tying TD, just nine seconds later, to lift the visitors ahead 42-35.

Ferguson added the insurance on a 9-yard catch and surge into the end zone on NSU’s next series, capping a 68-yard, eight-play march for a 14-point advantage with 9:30 to go. It was barely enough.

Colbert steered a 73-yard, 13-play drive he capped with an 8-yard TD run at the 5:01 mark, then brought the Cardinals to the brink with a 37-yard strike to Dorian Gaston. But Jackson crashed through to deflect Elvin Martinez’ seventh extra-point try, and NSU got two first downs, the last on a 40-yard Jared West run, to run out the clock.

“I told Nate Nanai (the tackle next to him on the extra point) I was gonna get this one,” said Jackson. “(Martinez) was hitting it low and I thought I could get in there, and I did.”

The Demons played turnover-free football for the third straight game, the first time in NSU’s 41-year NCAA Division I history they’ve managed that feat. Eppler’s 474 pass yards were 93 more than any previous NSU quarterback, with scoring strikes of 17 (Quan Shorts), 22 (Levar Gumms), 38 (Marquisian Chapman), 11 (Jaylen Watson) preceding the final two by Ferguson.

“It’s great how we came out and got the win,” said Eppler. “The big boys gave me time to get it to the playmakers’ hands, and all the credit to them for making the plays. All I did was get them the ball and it was fun to watch them.

“We stood tall against a great comeback by Lamar and we made plays when we had to have them.”

Eppler finished 27 of 48 while hitting eight targets. Ferguson had 142 yards on four catches while Watson’s six snags (78 yards) and five by Chapman (78 yards) topped the NSU receiving worksheet.

It was the highest-scoring Southland win in school history. No NSU team had ever allowed 48 points and survived.

“Our guys just stayed the course, and we made a play at the end. We came here to be 1-0 in the conference, and we leave here 1-0,” said first-year Demon coach Brad Laird. “To get a road win in the conference, we’ll start it out however we can get it done.

“I couldn’t be more proud of a group that overcame a lull and held off a great rally by Lamar, and held on to win, made the plays to win,” he said.

Jackson’s decisive point-after swat was overshadowed by Ferguson’s astounding leap and reach skyward with his right hand. As he was dashing downfield, he pulled in Eppler’s throw, landed angled toward the NSU sideline, about a yard away, but kept his balance, spun into the field of play at the 50 and outraced Lamar’s Rodney Randle Jr., powering through a diving tackle try inside the five to score.

“I’ve made catches like that in practice, but never in a game,” said Ferguson, a prep All-American at West Feliciana High in 2015 who started his career at LSU but transferred to NSU in 2017 and made his Demons debut three games ago. “It was a simple go route, and it was an outside throw. We call it ‘my ball, (or) no ball.’ It was a play that had to be made.

“I honestly thought I was about to step out of bounds, but I looked down and saw I was still in play, so it was time to go,” he said.

Ferguson’s timing, on that play and the next touchdown, proved perfect for NSU.