Last Modified: Saturday, November 23, 2013 11:21 PM
BEAUMONT, Texas — If it wasn’t a rivalry before, it is now.
Lamar made sure of that Saturday night.
With nothing to lose, the Cardinals almost sent a death blow to McNeese State’s hopes of a bye in the first round of the upcoming Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
As if the 50 or so miles that separate the two schools does not give reason enough to dislike the other, that would have.
Despite being outplayed most of the night, and having the biggest gamble of head coach Matt Viator’s recent time on the sidelines come up snake eyes, McNeese is right where it wants to be.
The 42-38 win over the upstart Cardinals in Beaumont means the Cowboys are back in the saddle when it comes to the playoffs after a three-year absence. That was the season’s first goal.
It also means they are now on the clock.
Their playoff position will be decided by a committee which must choose not only the top 24 deserving clubs, but hand out seedings. McNeese looks to be in line for one of the top eight, meaning an off week before a second-round home game.
Call it a double dose of home cooking. One week turkey, the next playoffs in Lake Charles.
“I think we deserve the bye,” said running back Dylan Long. “It looks that way to me.”
But looks can be deceiving.
“We have done all we can,” said quarterback Cody Stroud. “It is not up to us now.”
McNeese will find out its fate today, but the Cardinals almost sealed that for them a few hours earlier.
With a biting wind in their faces and 89 yards of turf in front of them, the Cowboys began their playoff drive a long way from where they ever expected.
“That last drive is the way we have to play the rest of the year,” Stroud said.
And, considering they had been stopped twice from inside the Lamar one while down by just a point earlier in the final quarter, it would seem the task might have been too much.
But those days were buried for good thanks to a winning march that got their coach off the hook.
Viator had been the one who passed on a chip-shot field goal that would have given McNeese the lead with less than 6 minutes left.
“We all wanted to go for it,” Stroud said.
But the decision, which he says he never second-guessed, was all Viator’s. But twice Long was held short of the end zone, according to officials who also missed an obvious face mask penalty against Lamar as well.
“I was in both times,” Long said. “The second time easy and they grabbed and pulled my helmet hard on the first play.”
Recent groups of Cowboys have found ways to lose these types of games when hit with such adversity. Not this group. Not this year.
“We knew we could get down there and score again,” Stroud said. “Never a doubt we had the team to do it.”
And they did, with 58 seconds to spare, turning the final nail in the Cardinals’ upset coffin over to the defense, which picked off a pass to ensure the victory and 10-2 regular season.
“What I’m most pleased with is how the guys responded,” Viator said. “They could have been disappointed in not making the touchdown when we were so close, but they just went back and found a way to win.”
That is the thing about this team: it has found a way to win.
Maybe it was all those close calls the last two years which taught them lessons that are now paying off.
Maybe it is some type of destiny working for them.
Or maybe they have just been lucky. None of that matters now.
“Championship teams find ways to win,” Stroud said. “They outplayed us for three-and-a-half quarters, maybe more. We may have not looked our best at times, but we did what it takes to win that is all that counts.”
That’s the way playoff teams should talk. They should talk about advancing, surviving, doing whatever it takes.
And that is what McNeese has become, a playoff team. They have earned the right to be called that by a season of finding a way to win.
Style points are out the window at this point.
“I have never worried about that,” Viator said.
Even in his big decision you find a new Cowboys attitude.
Many coaches would have taken the easy field goal and the lead. It was the safe decision. You could even argue the right decision.
But Viator was going for the win.
He trusted his offense to get a yard, or make the most of a second chance. He trusted his defense to give that offense a second chance.
And that is the difference. This team now plays with confidence and a swagger.
They play to win, just like their coach did when the ball was about a foot away from the goal line.
Along the way the Cowboys have found a real new rival and likely a seed worthy of their swagger.
Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at email@example.com