(Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, December 07, 2013 11:52 PM
The last one leaving Cowboy Stadium can get the lights. This party is over.
A season of excitement came to a crashing halt with an evening of disappointment that gave every McNeese fan the sinking feeling they had seen this type of debacle before.
The ones that bothered to show up that is.
For just as disappointing as the 31-10 loss to Jacksonville State, which never really felt that close, was the smallish crowd before and even much smaller after halftime.
After complaining about missing the playoffs the past three years, McNeese fans seemed more than willing to sit this one out instead of sitting out in the cold.
The paid attendance for the playoff game was 5,036, roughly a third of what the Cowboys averaged during the regular season.
Maybe they just knew what was coming.
"It was disappointing," said McNeese State Athletic Director Bruce Hemphill. "We had great support all year and we really appreciate the fans who came out. Maybe it was the cold, but we will have to see what happened."
It does make you wonder just how desperate this town is for a winner, or how interested.
If it's true you get what you deserve, then the missing McNeese fans got the performance they deserved. But that is just a subplot. The real story took place on the field.
McNeese State may have started to turn the corner back to prominence, but the road to the Football Championship Subdivision elite is still long.
And these Cowboys, like the four previous before them who made the playoffs, could not get over even the first speed bump. Speed bump, make it more like a giant brick wall.
Jacksonville State, a team that was 0-7 in its history against McNeese, made history of the Cowboys Saturday night — with ease.
The Gamecocks are now 1-7 against the Cowboys, adding to recent playoff misery for this program.
Overall, Saturday's postseason loss was the sixth straight for McNeese, dating back to the national championship game of 2002.
It was the fourth in a row for head coach Matt Viator, who told all that this was a new team and had nothing to do with those losses.
Yet they followed in their footsteps with a sloppy playoff showing that had the contest all but decided by halftime.
Jacksonville State's shockingly easy victory could be flagged 15 yards for piling on.
"Very disappointing," said Viator. "I don't really know what to say right now. I'm at a loss for words."
Before last night, Viator's teams had been outscored in the playoffs 124-34. That number only grew with each Gamecocks score.
That is what made this blowout so surprising. A loss, sure, but this after a bye week, after earning the sixth-seed with a 10-2 record is like getting blindsided by a blitzing linebacker.
With all the talk of changing the playoff culture, what we got was a case of culture shock.
When he wasn't being sacked or intercepted, quarterback Cody Stroud was under-throwing and overthrowing receivers with equal frequency.
The Southland Conference's Offensive Player of the Year reverted back to his days of struggles during his sophomore season. He would finish just 18 of 40 for 255 yards, was sacked 11 times, fumbled on three of those and was intercepted twice.
While his head coach was willing to take the blame for this one, Stroud wanted none of that.
"This is on us," he said. "We didn't make the plays to win the game."
Most of Stroud's positive numbers came late, when the outcome had long since been decided.
On those occasions he had time to throw and hit the target, there were more than enough drops to go around by his receivers. They dropped nine of Stroud's tosses.
The running game wasn't much better.
To show how bad things were for the Cowboys, of their three first downs in the opening half one was by penalty, another came on the game's second play from scrimmage and the third was by the rarest of happenings, when they got their own punt blocked.
A recovery of a fumble on the return of that block gave early hope this might be the Cowboys' night. That only proved to be fool's gold.
"This comes down to wins and losses," said Viator. "If you lose, you want to lose playing the best way you can. We didn't do that."
McNeese's only scores came late and were more whimpers of protest rather than a statements of presence.
"People will judge this the way they want to judge this," said Viator.
In time we will be able to look at this record-setting season differently, as one to build on but not tonight.
"Right now it hurts," said Stroud. "It is not the time to wonder when we will remember the good times. I'll let you know when that happens."
About the only thing we found out for sure last night was thanks to those late McNeese scores.
The cannon in the North end zone works in the cold.
Other than that, the night was a total wash.
Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org