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McNeese State's Wallace Scott returns an interception for a touchdown against Weber State. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

McNeese State's Wallace Scott returns an interception for a touchdown against Weber State. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Cowboys begin tough stretch at Northern Iowa Saturday

Last Modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 10:39 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

In order to be the best, they say you have to beat the best.

No. 9 McNeese State will learn a lot about where it belongs in that discussion during the next month, starting with Saturday’s visit to No. 5 Northern Iowa. It’s the first of three consecutive games for the Cowboys against teams ranked in the top 15 in the Football Championship Subdivision Top 25 poll.

“It’s going to be a real big stretch,” said McNeese head coach Matt Viator. “But obviously we can just focus on this week. I think the great thing about a game like this is it gets 100 percent of your attention. We had guys in here early on Sunday watching film. You can sense they know what’s coming.”

This week’s game marks the first time McNeese and its opponent have both been ranked in the top 10 in the regular season since the Georgia Southern matchup in 2003.

“It’s good to get two top-10 teams in an early year setting that could possibly be a playoff game on down the road,” said McNeese quarterback Cody Stroud. “They are always near the top of the FCS. So it’s very good to see where we are.”

There is precedent for the scenario described by Stroud. When McNeese faced Western Kentucky in the 2002 national championship game, it was a rematch of a Week 4 regular-season showdown.

McNeese has lost its last four matchups against teams ranked in the top 10, starting with its first-round playoff loss to New Hampshire in 2009. The Cowboys fell to the eventual Southland champion in each of the next three years — Stephen F. Austin in 2010 and Sam Houston State the last two seasons.

However, the trip to Northern Iowa does bear some resemblance to McNeese’s last top-10 win, a 40-35 stunner at No. 2 Appalachian State in 2009.

Much like App State’s Kidd-Brewer Stadium, the Panthers’ UNI-Dome is considered one of the toughest facilities to visit in the FCS. UNI has a .799 all-time winning percentage in the facility (187-47-1), and has recorded four perfect home campaigns in 12 seasons under coach Mark Farley.

“I’ve never been there, but we have several guys on the coaching staff who have played there,” Viator said. “I hear it is a fantastic venue, and certainly against a tough team.”

The, ahem, UNI-que environment created by 16,000 people crammed into a domed facility figures to be as much of a challenge to overcome as what the Panthers are doing on the field.

But that element has McNeese players more excited than scared about playing in the Dome.

“I like that us-against-the-world mentality,” said senior safety Terence Cahee. “I like going into a hostile environment like we will with 15-16,000 fans and nobody wants us to win. It’s going to be just us on the sideline and the fans that come (on the road). I like that.”

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