After the Northwestern State football team stumbled through the first winless season in school history, quarterback Paul Harris found a source of motivation just about any time he threw on a purple-and-orange T-shirt.
“We were the joke on campus,” Harris, a former Tara standout, recalled. “I didn’t even want to wear my football stuff to class.”
The snickers turned to cheers in the space of a few months.
After a bumpy start last year, Harris and the Demons went on a four-game winning streak in the heart of Southland Conference play, putting themselves in position to claim a share of the league championship and claim an automatic berth in the FCS playoffs.
Stephen F. Austin spoiled the postseason hopes with a 36-13 victory over Northwestern on the final day of the regular season, but the Demons enter Year 3 under Bradley Dale Peveto encouraged by the direction of things.
The memories of 0-11 in 2009 were washed away by the 5-6 rebound, including a 4-3 mark in the Southland.
“Once we got on a roll and started winning in conference,” Harris said, “we were right there to win it all.”
The Demons move forward with 16 returning starters among 59 returning letter-winners.
Harris, who showed poise last year in leading Northwestern to a string of narrow wins, is back for his second full season as Northwestern’s quarterback after starting four games as a freshman.
The junior threw for 1,821 yards and rushed for 263 more last year, but he missed the second half of the SFA game after suffering a concussion.
“Not to bash on any of the other quarterbacks, but I’m the leader of this team,” Harris said. “I always feel like with me in the game, we’re going to have the best chance of winning.”
Harris has a reliable target back in tight end Justin Aldredge, a preseason All-Southland pick, as well as a veteran offensive line to protect him.
On defense, All-American junior linebacker Derek Rose, who rang up 138 tackles last year, returns. Alongside him, former walk-on Yaser Elqutub, a pre-med major, helps give the Demons one of the Southland’s top linebacking corps.
Junior safeties Jamaal White and Brashard Booker anchor the secondary.
How good can Northwestern be? Athlon Sports picked the Demons to win what promises to be a wide-open Southland race.
“I was proud when that publication came out, because it told me that somebody was noticing progress with Northwestern State football,” Peveto said.
Peveto, who served on Les Miles’ staff at LSU from 2005-08, will make a return to Tiger Stadium when he leads Northwestern into Tiger Stadium on Sept. 10. Then, there’s a trip to play Southern Methodist in Dallas a week later.
The good news for the Demons is, they have McNeese State, Central Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin at home in the conference season. SFA was picked to win the league by the coaches, McNeese was the pick of the league’s sports information directors, and Central Arkansas was picked third in both polls.
“Everyone is on board,” Aldredge said. “We all have one thing on our mind, and that’s winning a championship.”
But before they start making playoff plans, Peveto said Northwestern will have to correct a two-year-old problem in turnover ratio.
A year after committing 28 turnovers and forcing only nine, Northwestern gave away 19 interceptions and nine fumbles on offense. The defense managed just four interceptions and nine fumble recoveries.
“The fact we won five games with a turnover ratio of minus-15 is pretty incredible to be honest with you,” Peveto said.
If the Demons turn some of the giveaways into takeaways, Harris probably won’t have any problem wearing Northwestern football attire around campus.
He might even have a championship T-shirt to sport.
“You’ve got to have a goal to work toward, and that’s ours,” Harris said. “But you’ve got to go out and win games. We’re going to take them one game at a time. Every week, it gets bigger.”