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McNeese State tight end Josh Jordan had three catches for 51 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern State Saturday night. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

McNeese State tight end Josh Jordan had three catches for 51 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern State Saturday night. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Hickey: Injuries aside, McNeese a SLC contender

Last Modified: Monday, October 01, 2012 12:20 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

Remember all those guys who were injured for McNeese State’s 25-24 loss at Southeastern Lousiana last week?

Turns out the Cowboys really needed those dudes.

Every player who wasn’t on the field for the second-half meltdown in Hammond played a hand in McNeese’s 30-22 win over Northwestern State this weekend. It’s safe to say that there’s little chance McNeese loses to the Lions with them on the field, and likewise the Cowboys don’t take down the Demons without them.

Start with Marcus Wiltz, who led the way with 76 yards on 21 carries after missing the previous game. McNeese’s running attack isn’t as potent unless it has all three heads of the monster going full-steam. Wiltz may be the most important of the BMW triumverate because he is best suited to attack the middle of opposing defenses.

Or how about tight end Josh Jordan?

His return to the lineup was most triumphant — three catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.

Defensively, the impact of returning players was even more pronounced.

The Cowboys sorely missed the play of linebacker Joe Narcisse linebacker at SLU. He was back with a manical, energetic presence that assured this “opponent going 50 percent on third-down conversions” business was coming to an end. He also switched his number to the 34 of teammate Malcolm Bronson, the one key Cowboy leader who won’t be returning from his injury this season.

A number switch may seem like a ploy that would have no rational bearing on performance or outcome. Sports often toss rationality out the window, though.

“He’s now the emotion of the team,” said coach Matt Viator. “He wanted to wear Malcolm’s jersey. He hasn’t hit anybody in three weeks but worked hard in practice. His shoulder’s still not too good but he fought hard, and I give him credit.”

Fellow senior Ford Smesny’s return to the defense was also a huge lift. Smesny also missed the second half at Southeastern, and if Bronson and Narcisse are this defense’s heart and soul, Smesny may be considered the brains. Very rarely is he out of position — and I’m just using “very rarely” under the assumption it has happened rather than seeing sustained evidence — and it showed against the Demons.

Though there is no stat for it, one of his perfectly-timed blitzes completely altered one of Brad Henderson’s throws to force an incompletion. And he was in the perfect place at the perfect time with his interception off a deflection that sealed the win for the Cowboys with just over a minute remaining.

McNeese has a much-needed bye this week, which will ideally give cornerback Guy Morgan time to return to the lineup for an enormous showdown with Central Arkansas in two weeks. With Morgan on the field against Northwestern State, some coverage and tackling miscues on two of Henderson’s touchdown passes might not have happened.

“Sitting out that second half (at SLU), it hurt watching the team struggle giving up so many big plays,” Smesny said. “... The bye definitely helps us. We’ve got some more guys who can recuperate, and the younger guys can get some more looks. They’ll be more experienced also as this next week comes along.”

The bye also gives the Cowboys a chance to retool some of the things that have repeatedly gone wrong the last two weeks.

Twice in a row, McNeese could have put the game out of reach with a touchdown to end the first half, but failed to do so and settled for 3. McNeese allowed a first down on a fake punt for the second straight week, which absolutely can’t happen. Likewise, the same thing that allowed Middle Tennesee State back into the season opener — a long kickoff return — allowed the Demons to get back into this game.

As flawed as the past two weeks have been at times, this team is still pretty good. MTSU’s 3-0 record since losing to McNeese, including a 49-28 pasting of Georgia Tech, is a good indicator of that. With continued health and improved execution in moments where it can snuff out an opponent’s will to fight, the Cowboys can turn into the Southland’s team to beat after the break.

•••

Alex Hickey covers McNeese sports. Email him at ahickey@americanpress.com

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