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College football: Record passing effort not enough as NSU falls in season opener

Steve Mantilla/UTM University Relations ... Northwestern State quarterback Shelton Eppler set program single-game passing records with 43 completions and 62 attempts, but UT Martin surged in the second half in a 42-20 Demons loss.

Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations

MARTIN, Tenn. – The Northwestern State football team got the fast start it was looking for in its season opener Thursday night. The second half for the Demons did not play out the same.

UT Martin used a pair of non-offensive, second-half touchdowns to spoil a record-setting night for Northwestern State quarterback Shelton Eppler as the Skyhawks pulled away for a 42-20 victory at Hardy Graham Stadium.

“Give them credit, first and foremost,” second-year head coach Brad Laird said. “They came out and made plays in all three phases in the second half. We had some special teams miscues in the third quarter that gave them the momentum. We came back and had a chance to tie the score, and we had a fourth-down situation where they ended up with a defensive touchdown. You could see the momentum of the game change at that moment.”

That moment came with the Demons (0-1) trailing 28-20 with just more than 5 minutes to play. Kaleb Fletcher rolled out on fourth and 2 and threw a pass that Wanya Moton jumped and returned 78 yards for a touchdown that put the Skyhawks (1-0) up 15 with 5:06 left.

The interception return for a score was one of four second-half touchdowns for UT Martin, all of which came from 21 or more yards. The final three scores, which came in the final 17:13 of the game, covered 55, 78 and 53 yards and occurred in all three phases of the game

The chunk plays stood in contrast to a Northwestern State attack that ran 91 plays and outgained the Skyhawks, 483-309.

Eppler enjoyed a scintillating first half, setting in motion a night that saw him shatter school single-game records for completions (43) and attempts (62) while posting the second-highest single-game yardage total (387).

In the first half alone, Eppler was 28-for-36 for 285 yards and three touchdowns, two of which went to Quan Shorts, who established career highs in catches (12), yards (111) and touchdown receptions (2).

“The only thing that matters is we didn’t come away with the win,” Eppler said. “We’ll get back at it (Friday), fix what we need to fix and get ready for Week 2.”

The Demons’ passing game had to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago but was efficient early. Eppler completed 23 of his first 27 passes, including a span of 10 straight in the second quarter, as the Demons built a 20-14 lead.

Special teams issues arose though as the Demons had an extra point bounce off the right upright after Eppler’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Corey Smallwood, who hauled in his first career score despite a Skyhawks defender being draped over him.

The missed extra point and a missed 35-yard field goal at the end of the first half – along with a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown that was nullified by a holding call – left the Demons with a six-point lead.

Northwestern State maintained that lead for much of the third quarter before a pair of Terry Williams’ punt returns swung the momentum to the Skyhawks.

Williams’ 41-yard punt return set up Peyton Logan’s 21-yard scoring run with 4:22 to play in the third that gave UT Martin a 21-20 lead.

Just more than two minutes later, Williams gathered a one-hop punt on the run and brought it back 55 yards for a touchdown.

Logan (13 carries, 149 yards) capped the scoring with a 53-yard run with 2:53 to play in the game.

“Our guys kept fighting,” Laird said. “We just couldn’t put things together in the fourth quarter.”

— Featured photo of NSU quarterback Shelton Eppler by Steve Mantilla/UTM University Relations

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