LAKE CHARLES – McNeese State dominated the first half and held off a comeback bid by Northwestern State Saturday night as the No. 21-ranked Cowboys prevailed 30-22 in a Southland Conference football rivalry battle on Louis Bonnette Field at Cowboy Stadium.
The Demons (2-3 overall, 0-1 in the Southland) did all their scoring after halftime but an interception by Ford Smesny at the McNeese 19 with 1:09 left to play stymied a bid to tie the game. It was the first interception suffered by Demons quarterback Brad Henderson this season, and it came after his pass skipped off the hands of a Demon running back and downfield to Smesny.
The Cowboys (4-1, 1-1) roared out to a 17-0 halftime lead, but weathered a rally as NSU shook off a poor first-half offensive performance with 262 second-half yards and three Henderson touchdown passes.
He threw an 18-yard score to Clifton Brown three plays after Phillip Harvey ignited the Demons by bringing the second-half kickoff 60 yards to the McNeese 34. It was Harvey again making a dynamic play with a diving snag of a 41-yard bomb down the middle of the field from Henderson with 2:44 to go in the third quarter, drawing the Demons within 20-14 and more than answering a Josh Lewis 21-yard field goal less than two minutes earlier.
Then with 5:58 remaining, after McNeese scored 10 points in less than a minute to seemingly put the game away, a Henderson TD pass and a two-point conversion set up a down-to-the-wire finish. Johvan Jilbert caught a medium-range sideline route, then danced through two Cowboys into the clear and exploded down the NSU sideline for a 58-yard touchdown. Henderson tossed a two-point conversion pass to Rob Walker to close the gap to one score and another two-point conversion, 30-22.
The Demons seemed on the way to pulling it off. Taking over with 4:04 to go at their own 20, they drove 55 yards in nine plays, getting to the McNeese 25 on a 16-yard Henderson keeper on fourth-and-1 at the 41. Then, Henderson tried to connect with Walker again, but the ball skipped off his hands and Smesny snatched it at the 19, salting away the outcome, the 11th straight visit in vain by NSU to Lake Charles, and the eighth consecutive McNeese win in the series.
McNeese took control by halftime, exploiting the Demons with several underneath drag routes and short post patterns, with a pair of Cody Stroud touchdown passes building a 14-0 lead that expanded to 17-0 with a 17-yard Josh Lewis field goal on the last play of the first half.
The Demons eschewed a potential 44-yard field goal try and were victimized by a dropped touchdown pass on fourth down in the last minute of the first quarter, their only scoring chance in the first half. True freshman Daniel Taylor got his hands on what would have been a 27-yard TD from Henderson, but appeared to be looking for it on his outside shoulder and it was thrown to his inside. Taylor twisted, but could not make the catch as the softly-thrown ball glanced off his hands in the end zone.
McNeese needed to move only 52 yards for the game's first score, with the last two plays passes of 18 yards down the middle and 17 yards on the next play on a tight end drag route to Josh Jordan with 6:29 to go in the opening period.
The Cowboys ignited after NSU's failed fourth-down gamble. A pair of 12-yard runs got the ball near midfield and two plays later, Diontae Spencer ran a skinny post and split two defenders after Stroud found him wide open about 10 yards downfield, starting a 43-yard touchdown play 14:07 before halftime to make it 14-0.
McNeese drained the final 2:48 of the half away on a 64-yard drive kept viable by a tough pass interference call at the NSU 10 giving the Cowboys a third-down conversion. The McNeese receiver appeared to break off his route and collided with NSU linebacker Patrick Black, who drew the interference flag.
Rugged goal line defense by the Demons forced McNeese to settle for the 17-yard field goal and avoided a back-breaking TD.