Northwestern State opens season tonight against SLU

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NATCHITOCHES – The stakes are sky high Thursday evening in Turpin Stadium when old rivals Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana collide in a season-opening 6 p.m. Southland Conference football showdown at NSU’s Turpin Stadium.

It’s the first time since 1992 the Southland season has started on the first week of play. For NSU, it was 1974 the last time the Demons opened with a conference contest. The game was shifted from its originally-slated early October date at Southeastern’s request a couple of years ago so the Lions could play an FBS foe later in the schedule.

That’s A-OK for Demons’ third-year coach Jay Thomas.

“I’ve never been around a season opening game with this kind of buildup and excitement. Our town, our campus, our fans have been on fire for weeks now. It’s really got the feel of a playoff game, a quarterfinal or semifinal game,” he said.

The game will be telecast nationally on the American Sports Network in almost 60 markets including Los Angeles, Chicago and Pittsburgh, along with stations in four Louisiana cities: Shreveport, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and New Orleans. It’s also available to DirecTV subscribers on the sports package through Altitude 2 and MASN 2, and through the Southland.org/watch link or the Southland app at no charge as Lyn Rollins, Rene Nadeau and Kelsey Wingert provide the announcing.

The Demon Sports Network will broadcast the contest on flagship station 100.7 FM KZBL in Natchitoches, 710 AM KEEL in Shreveport, 105.5 K-BUK in Alexandria and 103.1 FM KWLA in Many/Leesville. The audio stream is available at NSUDemons.com with Patrick Netherton, Richard deVargas and Tony Taglavore calling the action.

The teams are engaged in a series dating back 80 years, to Sept. 20, 1935, when the Lions prevailed 19-13 in Hammond. It’s all square, 29-29, with NSU owning an 18-12 advantage in games played in Natchitoches.

SLU has taken the last three matchups (27-22 at Hammond in 2012, 37-22 here in 2013, and 30-22 last year).

Last year in Hammond, NSU outgained the No. 11-ranked Lions by over 100 yards, but four turnovers and three blocked kicks, plus a long kickoff return, turned the tide to SLU. Still, it took an interception in the end zone with 59 seconds left for the home team to hold off a late surge by the Demons.

Both teams will have new starting quarterbacks after 2014 seniors Zach Adkins (NSU) and Bryan Bennett (SLU) rewrote school record books and ranked among the most productive QBs in the FCS last fall.

Two-time defending Southland champion SLU debuts ranked 19th in both major FCS polls, the STATS Top 25 and the FCS Coaches Top 25.

The Demons beat FCS semifinalist Sam Houston State, then ranked 24th, last Oct. 18, and are 2-4 under Thomas against top 25-ranked opponents. The Demons are 2-1 against ranked teams under Thomas at home.

It’s the second annual White Out Game for the Demons, kicking off the football season distinctively in Turpin Stadium. Last year’s season and home opener against Missouri State was the first time Northwestern State had worn white uniforms at home since Turpin Stadium opened with two late-season games in 1976.

There was a span of 37 years and 168 games when the Demons donned purple jerseys for games on Turpin’s turf. Although records were lost in a 1981 fire, yearbook photos indicate the Demons began wearing dark jerseys for home games in 1968.

In 1982, the NCAA changed its jersey rule, requiring teams to wear dark-colored jerseys for home games. In 1995 the NCAA Rules Committee modified the rule to allow home teams to wear white, provided the visiting team agrees.

Last year NSU was nearly in all white – but didn’t have white helmets. For the first time since 2001, the Demons will pull on white headgear Thursday night.

As Thomas enters his third season as head coach, Northwestern State is stockpiled with offensive firepower, boasts experienced specialists and an explosive return game, and counts on some cornerstones on defense to anchor a fresh-faced unit.

Eight returning lettermen are back on the offensive line, led by left tackle Pace Murphy, who is on the radar of NFL scouts. Eight veteran receivers return, headlined by All-America all-purpose player Ed Eagan and fellow senior Cody Jones. Productive running backs De’Mard Llorens and Daniel Taylor lead the ground gainers. How Adkins’ shoes are filled will be the focal point, with four contenders in the mix.

Defensively, safeties Chase Collins and Adam Jones, and end Leroy Armstrong, are the only full-time 2014 starters back. Also on hand are six more players – ends JeMarcus Marshall and Dannie Harmon, safeties Darius Poullard and Wilbur Myers, and tackle Randy Woodle – who started at least once last season, along with 2013 part-time starter Paxton Cook at linebacker.

Eagan’s game-breaking return game is complemented by third-year starters Chris Moore (kicker) and Andy Wickman (punter) on special teams. NSU led the nation in punt coverage in 2014, giving up only nine yards all year long.

Tickets are available at the NSU Athletic Fieldhouse, until stadium gates open at 4:30 and ticket windows open around Turpin Stadium.

— Doug Ireland, Northwestern State Sports Information Director