NATCHITOCHES – All season long, even against high-octane offenses at Texas Tech and Nevada, Northwestern State's defense has rarely given up the deep ball.
But that's exactly how 13th-ranked Central Arkansas salted away at least a share of the Southland Conference football title and locked up the league's automatic FCS playoff berth in a 35-14 win Saturday night over the visiting Demons.
"We gave up too many deep shots that were just easy scores," said NSU coach Bradley Dale Peveto after UCA threw touchdown passes of 20, 33, 26 and 42 yards, while quarterback Wynrick Smothers added a 57-yard touchdown run. "We always talk about making the other offense earn it, and this time we didn't."
Northwestern (4-5 overall, 2-3 in the Southland) dropped its sixth straight contest to a nationally-ranked FCS opponent, but had its chances to pull the upset, said Peveto.
"The game was within reach. I can make a short list of the plays they made and we didn't that made the difference," he said. "Congratulations to them for getting it done. Now we have two more games and the opportunity, just by doing what we're capable of doing, to have a winning season. It's up to us to as players and coaches to find ways to make the plays to make that happen."
The Demons play their final home game Saturday afternoon at 3 against No. 4-ranked Sam Houston State, hoping to pull the upset and finish with a perfect Turpin Stadium record for the first time since 2004.
"That's a great football team playing lights out in all three phases. We have to have a great plan, and play with great passion, precision and effort, to go win the game. But it's winnable, no doubt about it," he said.
The pivotal moments of the UCA loss came in the final three minutes of the first half. NSU's Brashard Booker recovered a fumble forced by Keland Johnson at the Bears' 36 with 2:48 to go. Trailing 21-14, the Demons didn't advance any deeper and had to punt. UCA drove 84 yards and doubled its lead on a 26-yard TD pass 15 seconds before halftime.
"If we scored there, it's 21-all or 21-17 with a field goal, late in the half and we're getting the second half kickoff with a good chance to take the lead the way our offense had been moving the ball. But we didn't get into field goal range, we had to punt it away, and worse, they drove the ball in the two-minute offense and got a touchdown just before halftime," said Peveto. "On that play, we had one-on-one coverage, had our hands on the ball, and their receiver won the battle for it. It deflated our momentum and put us down two scores."
The Demon offense was dynamic for the first 20 minutes of play, rolling up 215 yards on 34 snaps, but netted just 90 yards and no points afterward.
"We didn't make the plays we made most of the first half, and they were there to be made. The opportunity was there and we just have to get that done," said Peveto.