COLLEGE STATION, Texas – In a battle of head coaches making their first appearances with their respective teams, Texas A&M hits its stride in the second quarter en route to a 59-7 win Thursday against Northwestern State on the SEC Network.
NSU head coach Brad Laird was competing in his first game ever as a head coach after eight seasons as a defensive coordinator in three different stints, and his Demons (0-1) somewhat slowed the Aggies (1-0) in the first quarter to trail 7-0.
But Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, who won the 2013 national championship as part of his eight-year tenure, got his Aggies rolling with a 28-point second quarter.
“When it came down to the fourth quarter, this team didn’t quit,” Laird said. “We made a lot of mistakes, and that starts with me, and one game doesn’t define us as we have a lot of opportunities left.
“We did do some positive things tonight, and we’ll evaluate ourselves. They say the biggest improvement is from Week 1 to Week 2, and I’m confident this team will bounce back for our home opener against Grambling.”
NSU appeared affected early by the roar of the largest crowd that’s ever watched a Demons game (95,855), committing two false start penalties and needing a timeout to avoid a delay of game on a punt on its opening possession.
Texas A&M running back Trayveon Williams scored on a 73-yard run to highlight a 93-yard drive on the Aggies first drive for a 7-0 edge.
But the Demons stood tall on the next drives to force punts, including a missed interception opportunity when senior cornerback Dylan Wilson inadvertently knocked the ball away from junior safety Kevin Ratliff, who was awaiting a tipped pass.
Junior linebacker Blake Stephenson loomed large with his pressure early in the game, finishing with a team-high nine tackles and a sack.
The Aggies regained their rhythm to score touchdowns on their next six drives to increase the gap to 49-0 early in the third quarter.
“Texas A&M is a good team, and we’ll learn from this game and get better,” Stephenson said. “We’ll regroup for our home opener and play with a chip on our shoulder.”
Kellen Mond found Jace Sternberger for a 7-yard touchdown on third down to complete a 59-yard drive on the first play of the second quarter. The big tight end had five catches for 56 yards and a pair of scores.
NSU quarterbacks Shelton Eppler and Clay Holgorsen each played two consecutive series before rotating, with Eppler getting the start. Eppler led the Demons to a pair of first downs on the ensuing drive, and a would-be third first down was wiped out by a chop block penalty.
The Aggies marched 76 yards on the next possession, culminating in a 2-yard Williams dive (21-0), his second of the night. Mond converted a third-and-18 with a pass to Keldrick Carper as Texas A&M converted all four third downs in the second quarter.
Texas A&M tacked on two more scores in the final five minutes, a Mond 1-yard run following his eight-yard touchdown to Sternberger with six seconds left in the first half.
Williams sparked the second half with a 40-yard touchdown run to put the Aggies up 42-0. He finished the night 240 rushing yards, second most in Aggie history, on 20 carries with three touchdowns.
Down 52-0, the NSU offense threatened for the first time when Eppler found LSU transfer Jazz Ferguson for a 44-yard strike. The drive resulted in a missed 47-yard field goal by Austyn Fendrick.
After Ian Edwards forced a fumble that Desmond Prejean recovered, Ferguson used a double move to score from 71 yards on a Holgorsen pass early in the fourth quarter.
“It was man defense, and I was able to beat him early and he fell,” Ferguson said. “I had to score after that.
“This game doesn’t define our season, and we can’t wait to get back to Natchitoches and prepare for the next one.”
Ferguson finished with 129 yards on four catches in his first game in NSU purple. Senior Jaylen Watson was the second most popular target with 30 yards on three catches with Texas Tech transfer Quan Shorts adding 20 yards on four catches.
Both Holgorsen and Eppler topped the 100-yard mark through the air. Holgorsen threw for 125 yards on 9-of-19 passing with a touchdown and took the slight majority of the snaps in the second half. Eppler threw for 105 yards on 9-of-16 passing.
With Holgorsen under center, the Demons paraded 59 yards on 11 plays on the next drive, but Fendrick’s 39-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright in his second miss of the night. NSU benefitted from three first downs via penalty, but an NSU chop block penalty uprooted the possession.
“We’ll look at positives like winning the turnover battle (1-0) and not making a turnover,” Laird said. “What really got us was third downs (NSU was 1-of-12 and Texas A&M went 8-of-11). We weren’t able to sustain drives and we weren’t able to get off the field defensively on third down.
“But plays like Jazz made tonight shows you what he can do when he gets opportunities to make big plays.”
NSU committed 11 penalties for 95 yards.
The fourth quarter was the Demons’ best from a statistic standpoint as Texas A&M outgained NSU 148-101 in the final period.
But the Aggies rolled up 758 total offensive yards with 503 on the ground.
NSU gained 168 of its 251 yards in the second half. The Demons rushed for just 21 yards on 13 carries.
Punter Parker Pastorello averaged more than 42 yards on nine punts, including four inside the 20-yard line and three of more than 50 yards.
— Matt Vines, assistant communications director, Northwestern State