ABILENE, Tx. (NSU) - Northwestern State was on its heels, down 20 in the third quarter Saturday afternoon at Abilene Christian. But about an hour later, the Demons were inside ACU’s 2, trying a tying two-point conversion with 1:34 left.
The Wildcats stacked up an inside run by Jared West to deny the conversion and survived one more series by the Demons to escape with a 49-47 Southland Conference football victory. It was NSU's highest-scoring loss in school history.
NSU’s Shelton Eppler tied his own single-game school record with six touchdown passes, three to Jazz Ferguson and a pair to Bryson Bourque, but also suffered three interceptions, one at the ACU goalline and another returned 37 yards for the Wildcats’ last TD.
That came with 4:39 left, lifting ACU (5-4 overall, 4-3 in the Southland) ahead by 49-35. It seemed to repel the Demons’ rally, but Eppler and Marquisian Chapman connected for 37 positive yards on the next snap, launching a six-play, 67-yard scoring drive capped with 3:09 left on Eppler’s 19-yard strike to Bourque.
But sophomore kicker Austyn Fendrick missed his first extra point kick of the year (another was blocked in week two by Grambling), leading NSU (3-6, 2-5) down 49-41.
Needing another score, the Demons’ turnover-hungry Purple Swarm defense provided the opportunity.
Linebacker Quindarrius Whitley stole the ball from an ACU running back at the Wildcats’ 23 with 2:37 remaining, and three snaps and two Eppler completions later, NSU was back in the end zone.
Ferguson caught a 13-yard fade route in the left corner, breaking NSU’s 50-year-old single-season touchdown reception record (10 by Al Phillips). He was the target when the Demons tried to draw even, and ACU drew an obvious interference penalty that moved the ball a yard-and-a-half away from the goalline.
This time, the ball went to West but ACU’s interior defense smothered him in the backfield.
“We had a couple options there, and that one didn’t work. Give ACU credit for making a great defensive stop,” said first-year Demons’ head coach Brad Laird.
NSU got one more shot in the final 30 seconds, starting at its own 15. Two completions moved the ball to the Demons’ 40, but time expired after a sack and two incompletions.
“It crushes you to fight that hard, come back like that, and not win. I can’t say enough about how this team competed. They will fight. That’s who they are,” said Laird, stopping to compose himself.
Eppler, playing for the first time in three games after a concussion sustained Oct. 20 against Sam Houston State, finished with 367 yards passing (third-most in school history) on 25-of-41 aim. His TD passes went for 42 yards to Jaylen Watson, 30 to Bourque, 25 and 33 to Ferguson, then the last two.
Ferguson had one more catch and totaled 82 yards receiving, giving him 934 in nine games, just 10 shy of the Demons’ record 944 in 12 games in 2001 by Nathan Black.
“I don’t care about the records. My brothers and I laid it all out there today and it hurts to lose this way,” said Ferguson. “We’ve got to be better. Mistakes cost us earlier in the season against some ranked teams in games we should have won and it happened again today.”
ACU’s Luke Anthony threw for 344 yards, going 31 of 47 with an interception, including three short touchdowns, sandwiching a pair of 2-yarders around halftime.
The Wildcats drove 70 yards in 12 snaps, going up 24-14 with 15 seconds left, and rolled 75 yards on nine plays after the second-half kickoff to go up 31-14. The Purple Swarm defense came up big after Eppler’s first interception gave ACU possession at NSU’s 13, holding the Wildcats to a 23-yard field goal for a 34-14 lead.
But Ferguson and Eppler connected for scores twice in under four minutes as NSU closed the gap to 34-28, and the Demons refused to yield.
“We’ve got to play better, more consistent football for 60 minutes, from start to finish,” said Laird. “But gosh, this team will compete for 60 minutes.”
NSU is home for the final time this season next Saturday evening at 6 against nationally-ranked McNeese, which was upset 23-6 Saturday at Southeastern Louisiana.