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Cowboys face huge challenge in South Florida

Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 6:36 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

Can McNeese State make lightning strike the same place twice?

Maybe. But the Cowboys will need a bigger bolt.

McNeese is going for its second consecutive season-opening win against a Bowl Subdivision opponent when 2013 kicks off against South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa at 6 p.m. today.

But the Bulls are no Sun Belt opponent. All three of McNeese’s FBS wins since 2002, including last year’s at Middle Tennessee, have come against that league.

USF is in the Big East-aftermath known as the American Athletic Conference, the champion of which receives an automatic berth to a Bowl Championship Series New Year’s bowl game.

“It’s going to a huge challenge. They’re a BCS program, and they look every bit of it,” said McNeese head coach Matt Viator. “Long, big. Obviously guys that can run.”

The Bulls are led by new coach Willie Taggart, who makes his debut after sparking Western Kentucky to its first winning seasons since moving up to the FBS level.

McNeese enters the game as 20-point underdogs, but has confidence after succeeding in that role a year ago.

“They can print what they want,” said senior running back Marcus Wiltz. “I know I’m confident in me and our team. We’re going in with the attitude that we’re going to win this game.”

The Cowboys must win what promises to be a challenging battle up front to have a chance. McNeese has three offensive linemen making their first career starts, including defensive line converts Nick Gorman and Quentin Marsh.

USF rolls eight deep with its defensive line, which is anchored by Notre Dame transfer Aaron Lynch at end.

Lynch sat out last season as mandated by NCAA transfer rules, so he’ll have the element of mystery to go along with his 6-foot-6 size and athleticism.

“I saw a few clips of him in the All-American Bowl a few years ago, so I’ve seen a little bit of him,” said McNeese left tackle Antoine Everett. “I know he’s a good playmaker. He’s got a high motor. I have to come out ready to compete. But you have to be excited to go against competition like that, one of the best defensive ends in the entire country.”

The Bulls intercepted two passes all of last season. But with a new coaching staff in place, McNeese quarterback Cody Stroud isn’t assuming he’ll have an easy time of it picking on their secondary.

“A new coordinator is always going to bring new fire, as it has with our (defense),” Stroud said. “We look at the personnel from last year, but I’m sure they want to get off to a fresh start. It’s not the same as last year. They’re probably a lot more hungry. So I have to play them like they’re the best defense in the nation.”

USF will try to control time of possession, so McNeese wants to get ahead early and win the battle defensively to force third-and-long situations.

“Most FCS teams who win have gotten ahead early,” Viator said. “It would help, certainly, with the kind of offense they run, and it puts the pressure on them.”

Then there are the more intangible areas.

“The two biggest things that get you when you play an FBS team are conditioning and the kicking game,” Viator said. “We have to make sure we’re in the very best shape we can be, and you can’t have the breakdowns in the kicking game. They have more players and coaches and all those things.”

This is the second meeting between the schools, with USF beating the Cowboys 41-10 in 2006.

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