(Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, October 27, 2012 11:22 PM
Where once they had suffered failure now came success.
Past frustration became jubilation for this time McNeese State didn't let the big lead slip away late.
While it won't save the season, it can go a long way in making for a happy ending.
The Cowboys used the tough lessons learned in two last-minute losses to finish off a foe Saturday night.
This time, when the game was on the line, the Cowboys turned up the heat.
"We were not going to let that happen again," said defensive tackle Kevin Dorn. "We learned from those games."
McNeese's 35-24 homecoming win over Stephen F. Austin looks safe enough on paper, but that's only if you were not in the crowd.
Despite taking an 11-point lead with three minutes remaining, there was a sense of impending doom. Even after Dorn's sack pushed Stephen F. Austin back on the following drive, you had a feeling you had seen this before.
Two weeks ago, Central Arkansas rallied to score 10 points in the final 70 seconds to beat McNeese.
"I don't want to say I didn't think about that, but I sure didn't want it to happen again," Dorn said. "I wanted to make sure that wasn't going to happen again. The past is the past."
While the Cowboys will move on, it is hard to forget that twice this year they have blown leads in the fourth quarter. Otherwise, this might be a special season with just one loss.
"I don't think about that now, but maybe when the season is over it will come back in my mind," said head coach Matt Viator.
But not on this night. This was about how the Cowboys were going to finish off an opponent.
Arkansas dancing in their heads, the Cowboys stayed focused.
"We just had the thoughts about making the next play," said defensive tackle Pat Williams. "We wanted to make them pay for every yard, to wear them down this time."
To that end, Williams and crew chased the high-powered SFA offense all over the field. The fast-break attack had the Cowboys on their heels, bending a few times but never fully breaking.
Lumberjack quarterback Brady Attaway threw the ball a whopping 68 times, leaving the McNeese defense exhausted.
"It was a lot of running," said Williams, who pressured Attaway but never got to him for a sack. "It gets frustrating."
As for what it was like chasing that offense and Attaway, "I was hungry and he was a steak," Williams said.
Dinner was finally served when Attaway's final pass fell harmlessly in the end zone with just under a minute remaining.
"I got to breath a little easier," Dorn said.
So did the rest of the McNeese faithful. They had grown accustom to holding their breaths down the stretch.
Maybe more importantly this win keeps the Cowboys reverent in the Southland Conference. It was their first win over SFA in four years, meaning the senior class was not swept by the Lumberjacks.
"We could not let that happen," said Williams, a senior.
Just as importantly, it saves McNeese from an ever colder reality.
Had they lost, the Cowboys would have been 0-9 against the top three teams in the Southland -- Central Arkansas, Sam Houston State and SFA, over the past three years.
You can't call yourself elite or a title contender with numbers like that. In fact, 1-8 isn't that much better, but at least the Cowboys can say they are on a one-game winning streak against the best.
This win is about the Cowboys figuring out, at least on one night, how to win a big game. Williams and Dorn said it was a mindset, that they wanted to make sure they stayed focused for all 60 minutes.
While it worked, it leaves the question of why didn't they do this before?
Until they figure that out, wins like this will be nice, but true success will still be hard to come by.
Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org