McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Thursday, October 10, 2013 7:59 PM
With virtually the same cast of characters as last year, McNeese State’s offense has made the leap from good to juggernaut in the first half of the 2013 season.
So what’s the difference?
More experience. Improved chemistry. And just a couple of new parts who have made the Cowboys that much more dynamic.
“We have some new offensive linemen and a new tight end (Nic Jacobs), but mostly the other guys are all back,” said Cowboys head coach Matt Viator. “I think what we’re trying to do is have the ability to run and throw it. If we continue to have some balance, we have a chance. Anybody can take away one if they want to. We have to have the ability to do both. In most of the games we’ve been successful.”
The most significant difference for McNeese comes in the passing game, which defenses have to more fully respect. The Cowboys are averaging nearly 70 yards more per game through the air than they did in 2012.
The maturation of senior quarterback Cody Stroud is a big part of that increase in success.
“He’s always shown greatness,” said senior wide receiver Ernest Celestie. “No matter what the critics or media have said, we’ve always known what he was capable of doing... It’s been good seeing him grow as a leader and a football player.”
Stroud has been able to better distribute the ball this season.
Last year, five Cowboys exceeded 100 receiving yards for the season. This year six Cowboys have reached that mark, and David Bush will likely become the seventh with his next catch.
“Cody’s done a tremendous job of spreading the ball around,” said offensive coordinator Tim Leger. “Looking at last week’s (total receptions) there’s a bunch of ones and twos and threes. There’s not one guy that really defenses can bracket or try to take away.
“(Darius Carey) was kind of the guy last year. Every time we had to have a play made, he was the target. This year we’re just making plays and guys are doing their job.”
So far this season, Diontae Spencer is the only target to have the team’s most catches in consecutive games, and just barely. His four grabs were tops against Northern Iowa, while he tied four teammates with two catches against Central Arkansas.
“There’s no individualism this year. I felt we had some guys last year that were all about themselves,” Celestie said. “They did a lot of ‘me-me-me’, not ‘we-we-we.’ We’re more well-rounded as a team as far as production goes. There isn’t anybody worried about their personal stats.”
McNeese also has more diversity in its running game after moving Dylan Long from fullback to tailback thanks to the ability to run two- or three-tight end sets in short-yardage situations.
Long is tied for the team lead with five touchdowns, and third with 203 rushing yards.
“We have different types of bodies at running back, there’s no question,” Leger said. “Dylan is 230 pounds, very athletic and has great vision. Sometimes Javaris (Murray) and Kelvin (Bennett) get to holes before they’re developed and end up running sideways.
“With Dylan, it naturally times out to some of the schemes and fits that we use him for. And he’s a tremendous athlete. He definitely brings a different element. He’s a tough guy to tackle in short yardage and the red area, but he also breaks some runs.”
Leger noted that Bennett and Murray have an element of breakaway speed that makes them just as valuable as compliments to starter Marcus Wiltz, who is third in the league with 132 all-purpose yards per game. All three have busted big plays for the Cowboy offense, which is perhaps the single biggest area of improvement over a year ago.
Last season, McNeese had a total of 45 plays (16 rushing, 29 passing) that went more than 20 yards, with 15 resulting in touchdowns. The Cowboys already have 42 such plays this year (14 rushing, 28 passing) with 14 touchdowns.
“I think it’s just familiarity with the offense. We’ve been in the system three years,” Stroud said. “Last year we didn’t make the plays when we needed them. This year, we’re doing that. It’s a testament to those guys putting in the work in the offseason. We worked hard this summer and it’s paying off for us.”
The relative consistency of an offensive line that came into the year with three new starters, including two who were defensive linemen up until spring practice, has also paid dividends.
“I thought this year they were going to make or break our year, and as of now they’re making us go,” Stroud said. “The couple of sacks we do have were coverage sacks with nothing open downfield. They are definitely the part of our offense that is making us go.”
Leger believes the one black mark on the offense — the 41-6 loss at Northern Iowa — will prove to be an aberration by season’s end.
“If you look at the film, it’s one of those days where we may have been a little late throwing, or a wideout’s route was just a little bit short,” Leger said. “A lot of those contested, knocked-down throws were completed in earlier games where our timing was a little better. Just a bunch of little things across the board where we were just a little off in the throwing game. I don’t think we’re that bad and I don’t know that they’re that good. It was just one of those days.”
Even with that performance thrown in, the Cowboys head into the meat of conference play on a pace to far exceed their numbers from a year ago.
“I imagine for a defensive coordinator we’re pretty tough to defend,” Leger said.