NACOGDOCHES, Texas — Northwestern State’s football season finished Saturday the way it went all year long.
The Demons were within reach of victory, as they were in all but one of their nine Southland Conference contests, but faltered in the closing stretch, falling 45-31 to rival Stephen F. Austin in the annual “Battle for Chief Caddo,” the largest trophy in sports.
NSU twice fought back from double-digit deficits, in the second and fourth quarters, but couldn’t get over the top either time. SFA counterpunched devastatingly, scoring with nine seconds left in the first half to lead 30-21, and essentially clinching the game with a 16-play, 90-yard, 8:07-long drive for its final touchdown with 3:35 to go.
“We couldn’t come up with a way to stop (SFA quarterback) Zach Conque,” said Demons’ coach Jay Thomas. “In the first half he hurt us with his arm, and then afterwards he did it mostly with his legs.”
Conque threw for 283 yards and three scores, and ran for a game-high 120 yards while steering the Lumberjacks to 581 total yards, 298 on the ground.
The Demons (1-10 overall, 0-9 in the Southland), winless in the conference for only the second time since joining the league in 1987, had a solid 450 yards offensively. Senior quarterback Brooks Haack, who entered the game on the third series, had a career day with 347 passing yards, the third-most in NSU history, just 17 off Bobby Hebert’s 36-year-old school record.
Junior receivers Bobby Chan-Chan and Cameron Lazare provided the bulk of the production. Chan-Chan had touchdown catches of 72 and 22 yards while posting 182 receiving yards, 10th on the Demons’ single-game list. Lazare, who hadn’t caught a pass before this season, had 132 yards on seven snags.
His last was a 65-yard scamper on a screen pass down to the SFA 6, early in the fourth quarter. Senior running back De’Mard Llorens scored his second TD of the day on the next play, bringing the Demons within 37-31 with 11:50 left.
“We were right there,” said Thomas. “But we couldn’t get the ball back. If we did, I think we would have taken the lead.”
It looked great when SFA had to start at its own 10 after a holding penalty on the kickoff. But 103-yard rusher Kijana Amous picked up 15 yards on the first two snaps before Conque worked some third-down magic to sustain the drive twice on third-and-long.
Facing third-and-14 at the SFA 21, against a three-man rush, he couldn’t find a receiver, but discovered a running lane up the middle, and scrambled for 15 yards.
On third-and-10 at the NSU 41, Conque laced a 12-yard pass to extend the drive. One snap after the Lumberjacks (5-6, 4-5) converted a third-and-1 in the red zone, Loren Easley knifed 11 yards for the crushing touchdown, and SFA converted a two-point play for insurance.
While the decisive drive was a clock-chewer, SFA’s scoring sandwich around halftime was not.
Llorens and Haack drew the Demons within 23-21 with 1:59 to go in the first half on a 3-yard play-action toss, but Conque raced the Lumberjacks downfield 80 yards on 10 plays and threw a 7-yard TD with nine seconds showing.
That 1:43-long drive was bookended by a 2:06-long scoring march covering 77 yards in five plays to open the second half.
What had been a two-point deficit two minutes before the half was suddenly a 16-point hole. NSU, which trailed by 10 twice and by 13 in the first half, battled back inside of a touchdown again hitting the stretch, but for the final frustration of 2016, couldn’t get over the top.
“Can’t ask for any more effort,” said Thomas. “I’m so proud of how hard these guys fought each game, and how hard they worked all season. I’m proud of J.D. Almond (NSU’s starting quarterback in the last three games, who was ineffective on the first two series Saturday), who took a terrific beating last week, but was out there at practice Tuesday and tried to get it done today, but was just out of synch throwing it. We decided to give Brooks a shot to get us going and he was on fire (21-31, with one interception and the three TD passes).”
Llorens finished just shy of another 100-yard rushing game, but over his league-best 84-yard rushing average with 94 on 13 carries. He was among 21 seniors in their last game, including safety Adam Jones, who made a team-best 10 tackles in his 41st career start.
— Doug Ireland, Northwester State Sports Information Director