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McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud. (Associated Press)<br>

McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud. (Associated Press)

Gazzolo Column: Now's when the Cowboys can really make their mark

Last Modified: Saturday, December 07, 2013 10:43 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

History can be a funny thing.

Recent history would indicate that the McNeese State Cowboys are in trouble tonight.

They haven’t won a playoff game since 2002 and have lost their last five overall.

Head coach Matt Viator is 0-3 in the playoffs.

Then there is history that goes beyond 2002. That would indicate the Cowboys are in good shape tonight.

The program has a great past and Jacksonville State is 0-7 against McNeese.

What this all means, of course, is nothing.

Recent and ancient history will have nothing to do with tonight’s game, the first playoff match for the Cowboys in four years.

It’s fun to talk about, makes for good copy to write about, but it matters very little.

Viator was right two weeks ago when he opened playoff talk by proclaiming that this year’s team has nothing to do with any of that.

They can’t live off playoff glories of old nor can any of them be held accountable for any of the missteps.

This is a different team, a different year.

However, if they really want to distance themselves from any lingering worries they simply have to go out and win.

“We are excited about our chances,” said senior quarterback Cody Stroud. “We want to show that this is a different team.”

Stroud said those words two weeks ago and you get the feeling his convictions have only grown stronger as kickoff grows closer.

But for the Cowboys to do what Stroud wants they have to play the way they have all year.

They can’t get caught up in the moment, for it can be overwhelming.

This is a good football team, one which has won 10 of 12 games and earned its No. 6 seed.

Now the Cowboys must act like it and must play like it.

For that, this team has got to play loose and have some fun.

After all, nobody expected them to be here when the season started.

Back on those hot August days, when the practice field baked and the hamstrings ached, McNeese was expected to be playing on the playoff bubble.

Few, if any outside their dressing room were thinking this team had a chance to win the Southland, let alone earn a first-round playoff bye.

Struggling just to make the playoffs was expected, a bubble team in the last week, not one trying to grab one of the top eight spots.

Yet they believed.

“We have high expectations for this season,” senior running back Marcus Wiltz said all the way back on media day in August. “I think we are going to surprise some people.”

Now is the time to start throwing much larger surprise parties.

It’s hard to say that this team has overachieved, for there is more than a little talent on it. But one can say they have gone beyond what was expected in the regular season.

That is nice, but if the Cowboys don’t win this game, on this field, against this foe tonight, a lot of that will be forgotten.

It’s just the way it is.

This team has raised the bar and with that comes higher expectations.

Making the playoffs might have been good enough after last year back on those dog days of August, but to say it was a great season if this game is lost would be barking up the wrong tree.

The playoffs are about surviving and advancing. They are about making a statement as to what kind of a team you are and what kind of a program you want to have.

For the elite, and McNeese wants to be considered among the nation’s upper echelon when it comes to the Football Championship Subdivision, then it must make noise in the playoffs.

Does that put extra pressure on the Cowboys? Yes, but they know that.

“You come to McNeese to be part of that winning tradition,” Stroud said.

Now it’s his and his teammates’ chance to leave their mark on those traditions.

Win or lose tonight is how history will judge this year’s Cowboys.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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