Demons fight to the finish in overtime win, finally getsome breaks

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NATCHITOCHES – Northwestern State lost its starting quarterback and its leading tackler to injuries during Saturday’s home game against Abilene Christian, and was already without its top receiver and a dynamic return specialist, who couldn’t even dress out.

But the Demons prevailed 26-23 in overtime, with an outstanding team effort – and a little luck, said fifth-year head coach Jay Thomas.

“We found little Mojo. He had been missing for a long while, and finally got back on our sideline,” said Thomas.

NSU (3-6 overall, 3-4 in the Southland Conference) won on the last play for the second straight week. Getting some overdue breaks helped.

ACU kicker Nik Grau, the first-team preseason All-Southland choice who was 21 of 25 over the past two seasons and hadn’t missed inside 40 yards in seven tries this year, was off the mark three times, the last one a 34-yard miss ending the game. He was unsuccessful on a 48-yarder to win with 13 seconds left in regulation, and on a 53-yarder earlier.

“We got enough pressure on their kicker, so he knew we were coming and that can make a difference,” said Thomas. “He’s a good kicker who missed three, so I believe what our guys did had an influence.”

If not for an offensive pass interference call in overtime, the Wildcats would have won. After Eric Piccione’s 39-yarder pushed the Demons up 26-23, the penalty erased a 17-yard touchdown pass and pushed ACU back to the 32.

“We got the call in the end zone, and there was no doubt it was the right one. D’Ronne Littleton did a great job covering their receiver but obviously got pushed away,” said Thomas. “The flag came out as it should have.”

The Demons prevailed behind Piccione tying the single-game school record with four field goals, perfect on his kicks after his only three misses of the season last week before his 36-yarder on the last play beat Houston Baptist.

“I worked on my mistakes in practice this week, and put that behind me,” said Piccione, who was good from 44, 45 and 43 yards in regulation. “When I go out there, no matter where we are on the field, I view it as like an extra point. It should be routine.”

Chris Jones led a productive NSU running game with his third 100-yard performance this season, 110 yards on 17 carries.

“We wanted to be more physical up front offensively, and we were,” said Thomas. “Our receivers did an excellent job of blocking and our backs ran well.”

The Demons played the second half without starting quarterback Clay Holgorsen, who sprained his non-throwing (left) shoulder. Leading tackler Nick Pierotti, also the snapper for punts, was lost with an ankle injury. NSU didn’t have star receiver Bobby Chan-Chan for the second straight game and went without freshman returner Hayden Bourgeois, who twisted an ankle in practice Wednesday.

“We have a good team, but we have to play team ball to win. We did that very well Saturday,” said Thomas. “Sometimes it’s next man up and that was the case in this game. This team has faced a very tough schedule, they’ve battled and had opportunities to beat ranked teams, and they keep battling.”

True freshman Kaleb Fletcher, who has gotten spot duty in the last four games, took the offensive helm after halftime. He led a 62-yard drive opening the third quarter, scoring on a 14-yard run, and guided a 41-yard march to Piccione’s tying 43-yard field goal with 8:56 left in regulation.

“Kaleb gave us an extra dimension when they were blitzing, which they did a lot, with his ability to move out of the pocket and be a threat running the ball,” said Thomas. “He made a big run in our game-winning drive at Houston Baptist and he did a lot of good things again this week.”

The Purple Swarm defense stuffed the Wildcats on three downs from the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter after ACU nearly scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 20-all tie.

“A great goalline stand really started with (safety) Ryan Reed making a hustle play and tackling the ball at the 1. (Cornerback) Dylan Wilson broke up a pass on first down and then our inside guys did fantastic work, as good as I’ve ever been around,” said Thomas.

“(Nose tackle) Christian Bluiett twice went underneath the center and hit the legs of the quarterback, so they couldn’t get any forward movement. (Tackle) Dannie Harmon, (end) Zak Kroloczyk and our linebackers all did their jobs as well as they could be done,” he said. “That turned out to be huge in determining the outcome.”

The Demons gained an advantage, ironically, when they lost the coin flip to start overtime. That allowed NSU to choose which end of the field to use, and the Spirit of Northwestern Marching Band, more than 300-strong, made it an easy decision to head to the south end for the Demons’ first OT since a 2010 home win over Sam Houston State on the same end of the field.

“Big thank you to the band,” said Thomas. “We choose to play overtime in front of them because they do create an advantage for us.”

The team celebrated on the field in front of the band with the traditional fight song and more afterwards, with Thomas joining his squad swaying to the music.

“Fun to see the guys win in that fashion, two weeks in a row,” he said. “The team gains confidence, knowing how to finish. We set a goal to win our last four and we’ve got two, with two tough ones left. I’m proud of how we’re competing.”

NSU faces its two biggest rivals in the last games of 2017, heading to nationally-ranked McNeese Saturday night and hosting Stephen F. Austin in an afternoon contest on Nov. 18.

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