By Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations, featured photo by Chris Reich, NSU Photographic Services
NATCHITOCHES – For 35 seasons from 1984-2019, both Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin football fans could mark their calendars for a November date with each other with many of those games falling in the high-stakes category.
Nearly four years since they last met, the Demons will host the Lumberjacks at 6 p.m. in Saturday’s home opener, marking the earliest meeting between the teams since a 27-21 Northwestern State victory on Sept. 15, 1979. The game will air on ESPN+ with Patrick Netherton (play-by-play), three-time NSU All-American linebacker Gary Reasons (analyst) and Tyler Moody (sideline reporter) calling the action.
“For so long, that game was the last game of the season and usually there were some implications, whether it was conference titles or playoff opportunities,” sixth-year head coach and former NSU quarterback Brad Laird said. “You played for the largest trophy in college football. This team will not need any more motivation to play their first home game, but it’s something special to bring back a team you had that rivalry with and be able to play them again.”
Northwestern State (0-2) and Stephen F. Austin (1-1) have not met since a 32-20 Lumberjacks’ win on Nov. 21, 2019, in the final Southland Conference matchup between the teams.
The rivalry resumes Saturday in the form of Northwestern State’s home opener – which comes in Week 3 or later for the third straight season.
“It’s an opportunity – every day is an opportunity,” said senior linebacker Jaeden “Buck” Ward, Northwestern State’s leading tackler. “What’s special is we get to play in front of our home crowd, play on the field we practice on every day. You finally get that moment to shine in front of your home fans.”
Like all but three players on the NSU roster – offensive lineman Jordan Cooper, linebacker Jared Pedraza and punter Scotty Roblow – Ward was not in Natchitoches for the most recent meeting with the Lumberjacks.
However, one of the players who somewhat paved a trail for Ward to assume his current starting position was.
Ward is the third different former Trinity Valley Community College linebacker to man a starting spot on the NSU defense since 2018 – following Blake Stephenson and Ward’s former NSU teammate Race Moser.
“One, that’s a good program,” Laird said of Trinity Valley. “That started with (former Trinity Valley head coach and NSU offensive coordinator) coach (Brad) Smiley and the success they had and has continued through the years. You know what you get from a player who comes from Trinity Valley – he works hard and will be a great teammate. Those two things, Buck has done during his time at Northwestern.”
Ward worked his way back from an early-season knee injury in 2022 to become a consistent contributor down the stretch of this past season.
As the Demons enter Week 3 of the 2023 season, they are searching for that type of consistency on both sides of the ball.
“Consistency was our No. 1 key to victory (at Louisiana Tech),” Laird said. “We continue to strive for it in all three phases in order for our team to take that next step.”
The good news for Laird and the Demons is they get to do so at home after playing the first two weeks of the season on the road.
That fact alone has upped the ante for the Demon players this week.
“We’re all excited, especially not to have to get on a bus and travel,” said senior wide receiver Jaren Mitchell, who set his NSU career highs in receptions (4) and receiving yards (60) at Louisiana Tech this past week.
“There’s nothing like playing in front of our home crowd. When we’re able to prepare and be in our own environment, it’s an edge we’ll have in our favor.”
NSU welcomes in an SFA team that has split its first two games – a 48-30 loss at Troy on Sept. 2 and a 38-10 win against Alcorn in Nacogdoches on Sept. 9.
“They’re going to be well-coached,” Laird said. “(SFA head coach Colby Carthel) has done a great job wherever he has been having his team prepared and ready to play. Going through the week, you know what you’re going to get. Our guys will prepare and be ready to face the Lumberjacks.”