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McNeese State players celebrate after they beat then second-ranked Sam Houston State Saturday night. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

McNeese State players celebrate after they beat then second-ranked Sam Houston State Saturday night. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Cowboys climb to No. 4 in national ranking

Last Modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 9:42 AM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

McNeese State jumped into the national top 5 for the first time since 2008 on Monday, receiving enough of a boost from its 31-23 win over then-No. 2 Sam Houston State on Saturday to reach No. 4 in The Sports Network FCS poll. The Bearkats fell to seventh.

Coach Matt Viator heaped praise upon a defense that limited the Bearkats’ dynamic rushing attack, led by Southland Conference all-time leading rusher Tim Flanders, to 85 total yards.

Sam Houston came in averaging 319 yards per game on the ground. Flanders, who was averaging 141.5 yards per game, was held to 22 yards on 11 carries.

“The biggest thing is we tackled well in space, which you have to do against Sam Houston, and we never gave up the big play. We made them work for it,” Viator said. “Coach Guidry did a great job setting up a game plan, but game plans are about how players execute. We did a tremendous job of executing what we needed to do, which was force them to throw the ball.”

Flanders was not the only Bearkat star to be neutralized.

Torrance Williams, who came into the game ranked second in the nation with an average of 22.5 yards per punt return, was only able to get one return for 3 yards as Jean Breaux forced four fair catches to go with a 43.5-yard average.

“I thought Jean did a heck of a job punting,” Viator said. “Not only the average, but the hang time.”

Viator thinks the Cowboys (6-1, 2-0 Southland) could have done a better job of offensive execution in the first half.

“We’re going to have to play more consistent on the offensive side down the road than we did the other night,” he said. “Obviously I wasn’t pleased with the two three-and-outs to start. We got fortunate they ran into Jean (on a punt). But we had four times with three-and-out, and the most we’ve had in any game this year is two. We’ve got to get better at that.”

Though Ernest Celestie and Diontae Spencer made two of the most challenging touchdown catches of the year in stifling man-to-man coverage, various McNeese receiving targets dropped four far easier-looking potential grabs earlier in the game.

“That’s a concern,” Viator said. “But I’m always concerned from an offensive standpoint when you come off a week off. There’s nothing like live-type situations.”

In general, the greatest challenge facing McNeese this week is the ability to leave last week in the rear-view mirror.

It’s likely some fans don’t even remember the Cowboys cracked the top 5 in ’08 because their stay was that short. One week after a triple-overtime road win at South Dakota State, McNeese tumbled all the way out of the top 10 with a home loss to Texas State.

The same potential scenario stares McNeese in the face with this week’s trip to Nicholls State, which is sandwiched between the Sam Houston win and another potential first-place showdown against Southeastern Louisiana in two weeks.

“It was a good crowd with a great atmosphere this weekend. To go play in a 3 o’clock game in Thibodaux is just a little bit different in the approach,” Viator said. “But I think they understand that. The only solution is to continue to work hard every day. We’re going to prepare the same way we did for Sam Houston, UCA, South Florida. You say and do the same things. You expect the same things out of practice, and hopefully that carries over.”

• NOTES: Marcus Wiltz was named the Southland Conference and Louisiana Sports Writers Association player of the week after gaining 122 yards and scoring a touchdown against the Bearkats. Aaron Sam was the Southland defensive player of the week with 10 solo tackles, including two for a loss. A McNeese player has earned conference or state player of the week honors after five of the Cowboys’ seven games this season.

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