McNeese State's Ford Smesny falls to the ground after intercepting Northwestern State's Brad Henderson to seal the Cowboys' 30-22 win Saturday night in Lake Charles. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, September 29, 2012 11:51 PM
A season was teetering on the brink of disaster.
Another big lead was one play away from being blown.
Suddenly, what seemed eight days earlier to be so promising was now about to slip away.
"We could not have handled a second loss like that," said safety Ford Smesny. "That would have been devastating."
So just when it looked like Northwestern State was going to turn McNeese's season upside down, Smesny stepped in to save the day.
His interception with just over a minute remaining preserved a 30-22 Cowboy victory that felt more like survival than triumph.
"We had confidence they would not get in the end zone and score the two points," said Smesny.
But that is just what happened the week before, when Southeastern stunned the Cowboys with a late comeback.
"We learned from that," said Smesny. "We knew we had to win to keep what we want to accomplish going."
That is a playoff berth and possible Southland championship. Most importantly, the Cowboys want to return to national importance.
Those goals are still in place thanks to Smesny, but there is cause for concern.
A week earlier McNeese was racing through the early part of the season in the fast lane.
Saturday night, they found themselves somehow at the crossroads, slowed down by their own mistakes.
A shocking loss at Southeastern will turn anybody's season upside down, not to mention their stomachs. The Cowboys didn't want that to happen again.
Yes, unlike the previous week McNeese did respond, but they didn't finish the job the way champion would like.
Three times McNeese had a chance to put this game away, and three times the Cowboys left the Demons wiggle room.
It almost came back to kill them again.
"Sure we would like to do more when we get the chance, but we will take the win," said Cowboys head coach Matt Viator. "It is a big win for us."
The victory does move the Cowboys to 4-1 but after the opening three weeks of the season you kind of kept looking for more. And McNeese had a chance to provide just that.
Twice they were held to field goals deep in the red zone when a touchdown would have ended the contest.
And the final time, up by 16 midway through the final quarter, the defense had Northwestern State pinned back on its own two, and let them off the hook.
By the time the Demons hit the end zone and followed up with a two-point conversion, the outcome was again in doubt.
"I did think about last week, but just for a second," said Smesny. "We just wanted to make a play to finish this game."
The Cowboys had a chance with just over four minutes remaining to seal the deal on offense on a fourth-and-inches at midfield. They lined up as if they were going for it, but only had 10 men on the field.
A timeout led to a punt.
"We had the wrong personal in," said Viator.
That resembled a week earlier when the Cowboys had just 10 on the field for an extra point on defense. Instead of tying the game Southeastern took the point off the board and went for the win, and got it.
Ugly history was not about to repeat itself for McNeese.
"It is important we learn from before and I think we have done that," said Viator. "We have a lot of football to play but I like the position we are in.
"If you had told me when the schedule came out that we would be 4-1 at this point, I would have taken it. I'm just not sure I would have expected we would have lost the game we lost."
Now we are left with one big question, just how good are these Cowboys.
They have showed they can win big games on the road, and blow big leads as well.
Fact is they are a work in progress.
The Cowboys appear to be good enough to compete for a conference championship, make the playoffs and even make some noise in the postseason with the right match-up.
They also have shown they are not yet good enough to put even the lesser teams on their schedule away.
Truth be told, we know very little about this team heading into the bye week.
One thing is for sure, you can't take your eyes off them for a minute.
Of course, you can say that about a both a beautiful painting and a train wreck.
I think somewhere in the middle lies the Cowboys.
For this week, disaster was averted.
Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at email@example.com