By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
It’s getting to where it’s hard to make much out of any one result in the Southland Conference, where just about every football game comes down to one or two plays and no team is immune to what that means.
It means nothing is in the bag for anyone, and no team is truly out of the playoff race with three weeks remaining. The league tightened up a bit Saturday, particularly with Texas State’s 34-31 overtime loss to Northwestern State at Bobcat Stadium, but also due to the other results.
League leader Central Arkansas lost at Nicholls State, 20-17. Sam Houston State beat Stephen F. Austin, 34-31, in two overtimes. McNeese State beat Southeastern Louisiana, 24-14.
In effect, the Southland Conference has two races open. The conference championship race features Northwestern State and Central Arkansas on top, each at 3-1. They play each other next week at Central Arkansas. Following are Texas State, Stephen F. Austin, McNeese State and Nicholls State, all 2-2, while Southeastern Louisiana and Sam Houston both are 1-3.
Then there’s the NCAA playoff race, which doesn’t include Central Arkansas during its transition to Division I. If, in fact, Northwestern loses at Central Arkansas, then all those 2-2 teams are right in the thick of that chase.
It remains that Texas State is well positioned among the 2-2 teams, but this league is so even right now that it doesn’t matter. Saturday’s game at Bobcat Stadium might is a case in point.
“The league is a mess,” Texas State quarterback Bradley George said, meaning it in the most respectful way. “I think we’d be in trouble (in the playoff race) with three (losses). But the way this league is going, I think there’s still a chance with two.”
The game came down to which team made plays in critical situations. When Northwestern State needed a drive to tie the game late, it twice converted fourth down. When Texas State took its chance to respond, it couldn’t manage a first down.
“I felt all week that is was going to go to the team that made the plays,” Texas State coach Brad Wright said. “They knocked down balls. We didn’t catch. They played better defense than we played offense and we had trouble stopping their running game at times.”
In overtime, Texas State couldn’t convert third-and-goal, then settled for a field goal. Northwestern State scored a touchdown on third-and-goal in overtime, winning the game. When it gets to overtime, of course, sometimes you’re not even talking about plays, as Northwestern State coach Scott Stoker acknowledged.
“We got lucky and won the toss,” Stoker said. “We got to play defense first. That toss there is bigger than the opening game toss.”
The Bobcats and Northwestern matched each other punch for punch throughout the afternoon, literally trading touchdowns until Texas State took a 28-21 lead with 13:02 left in the fourth quarter, when Adrian Thomas caught an 18-yard scoring pass from Bradley George. With that, the Bobcats took their first lead of the game.
With that, also, Northwestern went out and took this game by making plays. Its ensuing drive went 74 yards in 15 snaps. Twice, Northwestern converted fourth down – the first time when Drew Branch threw 15 yards to Jasper Edwards, advancing to the Texas State 22 on fourth-and-seven, then when Byron Lawrence ran four yards to the Bobcat 11 on fourth-and-three. William Griffin ran two yards for the touchdown, tying the game, 28-28, with 3:55 left.
Following that drive, which ate up 9:02, the Texas State offense couldn’t move. Starting from the Texas State 26, first George threw incomplete to Cameron Luke, then Karrington Bush was stopped for one yard, then George ran out of the pocket for five yards before the Bobcats punted.
“When you’re on the sideline that long, it’s hard to get yourself in a rhythm,” said Stoker, talking about that Texas State possession, but, more generally, discussing an aspect of his team’s strategy.
The obverse is that Northwestern’s offense was good and warm after going to the sideline for such a brief period. Taking over at its own 43 with 2:10 left after a 20-yard punt return, the Demons worked into field goal range. The big play came on third-and-13 from their own 40, when Branch completed a 30-yard pass to Dudley Guice, putting the ball on the Texas State 30.
The Demons ran three more plays down to the Texas State 23 before reaching fourth down and letting the clock wind down to two seconds, then calling time out to set up a 41-yard field goal attempt by Robert Weeks.
With three timeouts remaining, Wright called two of them just as Northwestern State was about to snap. As the Demons set up for the third time, Wright left them in suspense and let them snap, whereupon Weeks kicked wide left and put the game into overtime.
Taking the first possession of overtime, the Bobcats moved as far as the six when George connected with Daren Dillard for 19 yards and a first down. But Northwestern then stuffed Bush for a five-yard loss and George threw two incomplete passes, forcing the Bobcats to settle for Andrew Ireland’s 28-yard field goal.
Northwestern State kept it simple in overtime, giving the ball five times to Lawrence. On the fifth carry, Lawrence went two yards for a touchdown to end the game.
“We had our chances,” Wright said.
Northwestern State set the tone with defense, quieting the more reliable Texas State weapons. The Bobcats totaled 350 yards, well below their pre-game average of 484.2 yards, which led the country. George, who has been laser sharp for four weeks, completed only 17 of 36 passes for 201 yards. Luke caught three passes, which is half his average, for 27 yards, which is about a quarter of his average. Bush rushed for 92 yards in 16 carries, which, though pretty strong, is well below his pre-game average of 9.9 yards per carry.
Northwestern State succeeded in playing the pace it wanted. The Demons ran 76 plays, 34 of which were handoffs to Lawrence, who netted 173 rushing yards. During regulation time, Northwestern held the ball for 34:28, compared with 25:32 for Texas State.
“We just try to move the ball, play defense and try to make a play here and there,” Stoker said. “A track meet isn’t going to do any good for us … We’ve got to win the time of possession. If we win the time of possession, we get an extra series or they lose a possession.”
In the end, the Bobcats played a representative football game, certainly outperforming their public, which turned out only 9,100 on a pretty day with command of a playoff position on the line. The Bobcats certainly didn’t beat themselves, and that’s half the battle for a football program trying to find its stride.
“We played hard,” Wright said. “We played for four quarters. We didn’t play well all the time. I’m disappointed that we lost. That’s where I am, and I hope that’s where the team is. How we’re going to be remembered as a football team is how we come back from this loss.”
That comeback begins next week at Southeastern Louisiana (2 p.m.) on the Southland Conference Network. As far as being a good team by Texas State standards, the Bobcats (5-4 overall) need two wins in the next three weeks to be only the fifth winning outfit since they went to Division I in 1987. As far as being a memorable team, that has three weeks to work itself out.Email | Print