HERO Sports welcomes you to "Three-a-Days", where we will preview every single one of the 126 FCS programs from June 17 to August 6. Then, we'll preview all 13 conferences from August 12-15.. Today, we present … Northwestern State.
We'll leave no stone left unturned when it comes to giving the FCS diehards all they could ask for this offseason. Learn about every program in the country, with HERO Sports.
[divider]MORE FCS FOOTBALL:
- FCS Home
- FCS Preview Schedule – Team Links
- The HERO Sports Preseason Top 25 Poll
- Preseason All-American Teams
NORTHWESTERN STATE (5-6 IN 2018)
Southland Conference (NSU was Tied for 8th in 2018)
COACH: Brad Laird – At School: 2nd year (5-6 record) Overall: Same
LAST FCS POSTSEASON: 2004 (lost 1st round to Montana)
2018 OFFENSE: 28.4 ppg. (54th in FCS)
2018 DEFENSE: 34.5 ppg. (97th in FCS)
KEY GAME: Nov. 21 vs. Stephen F. Austin: "The Battle for Chief Caddo" rivalry has been played since 1924, and Northwestern State (once known as Louisiana Normal School) holds the edge over SFA 46-26-3. Why is this Thursday night, end-of-year matchup so significant? Well, we figure this … this may spell the chance for Northwestern State to land its first winning season in more than a decade (see "Sum it Up" below). And honestly? SFA may be in the same boat coming into this, as this program hasn't had a winning season since 2014. So there's a trophy on the line and bragging rights for these two schools that are 110 miles apart … and there's potentially a winning season, too.
SUM IT UP: In 2018, Northwestern State came oh so close to its first winning season since 2008 (7-5 that year). The Demons did some good things (blowout win over defending SWAC champion Grambling, win over FCS playoff bound Lamar, winning three of their last four games), and nearly hit the seven-win mark if they'd had fifth quarters against Southeastern La. and Abilene Christian, where they roared back in the fourth quarters. Regardless, this program seems like it's on the cusp of greatness. It is worth mentioning though, that games against recent Southland champs — Sam Houston State, Nicholls and Central Arkansas — haven't gone well in recent years. In the past three seasons, those elite programs have been 9-0 against Northwestern State. So that's the big question … can the Demons bust into that top tier of the league?
The truth is, the Demons lost some good players — like WR Jazz Ferguson, a rare FCS early entrant to the draft who is on the Seattle Seahawks' roster right now. But the cupboard is hardly dry and it starts with talented QB Shelton Eppler, who in three seasons of college football — one at NSU, two at JuCo — has thrown for more than 5,200 career yards in just 25 games. You do the math, this guy is productive. But who will he throw to with so many top targets gone? That's easy with transfers from Purdue and BYU coming in, as well as one of the top returners in Quan Shorts. With three top linemen back and the top RB returning, things should be strong on offense — but this pass-first offense (No. 5 in the FCS) really wasn't a massive problem last year anyway.
Defense is where the program would love to improve by leaps and bounds. In the spring game, the defense made a lot of good plays and showed promise. The linebacking corps looks pretty impressive, as do the safeties. If some holes can be plugged at the cornerback position and on the D-line, this defense should be much improved and will help the offense out by getting the ball back quickly. This program was No. 12 in the nation in forcing turnovers last year (26 — 13 INTs, 13 FRs). If that kind of ball-hawking continues and this group improves on points per game … this could be an interesting program to watch in the Southland.
OUR TAKE: Here's a prediction for you: Northwestern State is 4-1 going into its Open Date. Mark it down. UT Martin is a solid program in the OVC but is rebuilding some this year. Midwestern State is a lower division school, LSU is … well … LSU. Then league games at 2018 last place Houston Baptist and a home game against in-state rival Southeastern Louisiana, who should make for a good game but is hardly unbeatable. We think this being a home game makes the Demons the favorites … and we think NSU goes into the Nicholls road game 4-1. Then? It gets tougher. The Oct. 12 to Nov. 16 span features the six Southland teams that have made it to the FCS playoffs between 2015 and 2018 — five of the six have been champs or co-champs, and Lamar was an at-large last year.
So, NSU hits October 4-1 and has a winnable game with Stephen F. Austin at the end of the year. If that all goes well, there are five wins right there … and the Demons would need to take two wins from that tough six-game Southland stretch to get to 7-5 and that first winning season since 2008. We think that's possible, but not exactly a guarantee. The worst-case scenario here is 5-7, best is 7-5, that's our take.
[divider]SUBSCRIBE: HERO Sports FCS Podcast
COUNTDOWN: The Best Player in FCS Who Wears Each Number, 1-99
TOP RETURNEE: Jr./DB-PR Hayden Bourgeois (HERO Sports 2018 Sophomore 1st Team All-American – 5 INTs, 1 TD; 82 tackles led team last year)
THE FOUNDATION: Soph./KR Myles Ward (HERO Sports 2018 Freshman All American – 25.6 per KR, 1 TD); Sr./QB Shelton Eppler (2,639 yards passing, 26 TDs, 10 INTs); Sr./OL Chris Zirkle (Preseason All Southland); Sr./DL O'Shea Jackson (Preseason All Southland; 10 TFLs, 49 tackles); Sr./WR Quan Shorts (56 catches, 542 yards, 2 TDs); Sr./RB Jared West (735 yards rushing, 4 TDs — 24 catches, 176 yards out of backfield); Sr./LB Quin Whitley (81 tackles, 4.5 TFLs); Sr./DB Ryan Reed (79 tackles, 2 INTs); Sr./OL Jonathan Hubbard (returning starter); Sr./P Parker Pastorello (40.4 yards per punt, 13 over 50 yards); Jr./LB Isaiah Longino (48 tackles, 4 TFLs — 3 sacks in the spring game)
TOP NEWCOMER: Fr./ATH Aubrey Scott (No. 48 FCS 2019 signee in the HERO Sports FCS Recruiting rankings – Reported a Florida offer, as well as 4 other FBS offers)
COACH SAYS: "We're excited about playing a 12-game schedule, getting the extra game in the regular season. That hasn't happened for FCS programs for five years and we embrace the opportunity. We open on a Thursday night at UT Martin, a first-time opponent, and we'll end on a Thursday at home against SFA, which is always a great game. Our five home games all present good challenges, starting with one of the more successful Division II programs in the country with Midwestern State coming into Turpin Stadium. Any Southland Conference game is a battle. Those matchups against Southeastern, UCA, Lamar and SFA will be intense and I'm sure, fun to watch. The open date (Oct. 5) falls at a good time, in the middle of the season when a week off will really be beneficial." — head coach Brad Laird said about the schedule
WERE WE RIGHT?: Last Year's Northwestern State Preview
FCS 2020 NFL PROSPECTS: The List
BEST FCS TRADITIONS: The List
PREVIEWS: The Rest Of The Southland
Abilene Christian | Central Arkansas | Houston Baptist
Incarnate Word | Lamar | McNeese | Nicholls
Northwestern St. | Sam Houston St. | SE Louisiana | Stephen F. Austin
SUBSCRIBE: HERO Sports FCS Podcast