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(Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

(Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Hickey Column: McNeese flexed muscle in big win

Last Modified: Monday, October 21, 2013 9:46 AM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

That McNeese State beat No. 2 Sam Houston State 31-23 on Saturday night wasn’t the surprise. It was the “how.”

A defense that had allowed more than 600 yards in its previous outing suddenly looked like the Steel Curtain against the No. 2 scoring offense in the country, holding the Bearkats to half of their season scoring average while limiting Southland Conference all-time leading rusher Timothy Flanders to a measly 22 yards on 11 carries.

The numbers are stunning.

Flanders came into the game averaging 7 yards per carry this season and 5.8 yards per carry for his career. On Saturday night, his longest run was 3 yards.

Lance Guidry’s scheme was so effective at taking Flanders’ cut-back skills out of the equation that the Bearkats turned to a more straight-forward runner, Keshawn Hill, for its key drives in the second half.

Think about that for a moment. With the game still in the balance, a Walter Payton Award finalist was left sitting on the sidelines because the opposing scheme had rendered him that ineffective. The entire notion is absurd.

Hill was somewhat more effective — emphasis on somewhat — with 31 yards on 11 attempts.

That means Flanders, the nation’s third-leading rusher going into the game, was the fifth-leading rusher at Cowboy Stadium on Saturday night.

Marcus Wiltz (21 carries, 122 yards), Dylan Long (11 carries, 62 yards) and Kelvin Bennett (4 carries, 33 yards) all outgained him.

For Wiltz, those numbers come with plenty of personal pride. Though he never said he is better than Flanders, he voiced the opinion that he is too often ignored by people when it comes to talking about the best backs in the Southland Conference.

That probably won’t be a problem anymore.

“I came into here not to prove that I was better than Flanders, but just don’t overlook me,” Wiltz said.

Matt Viator said Wiltz has always had the talent to be the best, just not the health. Until now.

“Marcus is having a great season,” Viator said. “This is the first time he’s actually been healthy (from training camp to now).”

It’s unlikely Wiltz will put up the necessary numbers to be named the conference’s offensive player of the year, but that’s a good thing for the Cowboys.

Because of McNeese’s depth at running back, Wiltz gets less carries to stay fresh and preserve that previously elusive good health. Regardless of the pre- or postseason awards hype, Wiltz proved Saturday that he is the player opposing defenses must try to shut down.

Most of us already knew that was the case. What we did not know was if the defense was up to the task of answering the bell.

By shutting down Flanders and keeping the Bearkats out of the end zone on three crucial red-zone possessions in the first three quarters, that unit proved it could answer that question with a resounding yes.

The next question is whether that will finally be enough for the Cowboys as a whole to warrant the undivided attention of Lake Charles.

While the attendance of 15,352 was solid — there’s still no one topping that within the Southland — it did nothing to change the perception this area a place full of lazy, fair-weather fans. Call me crazy, but the attendance boost compared to the season-opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff should probably be more than 100 people when the No. 2 team in the FCS is in town for homecoming.

Certainly skepticism was warranted by those fence-sitters given McNeese’s performance at Northern Iowa and the playoff disappointments of the last decade. But Saturday night should erase any doubts about this version of the Cowboys, and fans will likely get another chance to see two unbeaten Southland teams play when Southeastern Louisiana visits in two weeks.

Those who have yet to give this McNeese team a look should consider it. The clanging of the cowbells might even clear that “Hotty Toddy” chant out of your head.

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Alex Hickey covers McNeese State athletics. Email him at

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