Last Modified: Monday, October 28, 2013 10:17 AM
The more the season plays out, the more difficult it becomes to put a finger on what happened in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Sept. 28.
That day, it seemed pretty easy to predict the trajectories of the two teams that left the field following Northern Iowa’s 41-6 domination of McNeese.
The Panthers were headed to No. 1 North Dakota State with a head full of steam and a legitimate shot at becoming the new top team in the FCS. The Cowboys were faced with back-to-back games against defending Southland co-champs Central Arkansas and Sam Houston State and the distinct possibility another strong September was going to devolve into an ominous October.
During the postgame press conference, an Iowa reporter asked Matt Viator if he thought there was a chance the two teams could meet again the the playoffs.
If Jim Mora was at the podium, the answer probably would have been “Playoffs?!?! Playoffs?!?!”
Instead, Viator gave a more measured response along the lines of “I certainly hope we have the opportunity.”
Now it looks like McNeese won’t have that opportunity, but not for the reason anyone could have imagined at that moment.
In a complete reversal of fortune, the Cowboys are the team with the hot hand, winning three straight in impressive fashion to climb back into the national top 5. The Panthers are in a complete tailspin, having lost all four of their games since beating the Cowboys. UNI will have to win out for a shot at an at-large bid and hope McNeese does the same so its victory on that day has some extra punch in the computer ratings.
From McNeese’s perspective, Viator’s demeanor in the postgame press conference helps explain how the Cowboys have turned things around. Sure, it was an innocent question — Iowans are polite by nature, so even after a 35-point loss they’ll ask you something positive — but a more high-wired coach might have gone off on a tangent that made Les Miles’ recent “hammer and nail” tirade look tame in comparison.
Viator remained calm and focused, and that’s the spirit of his entire team. Though they certainly looked a bit panicky in the UNI-Dome, the Cowboys have been the assertive team that doesn’t flinch in all three of their games since.
It’s harder to figure out what happened to the Panthers.
Certainly the loss of their top defensive player, middle linebacker Mark Farley, to a season-ending injury has played a role in their demise. As McNeese learned last year with Malcolm Bronson, the heart of your defense is not something you easily recover from losing.
But it feels a bit like Dr. Evil snuck in and stole UNI’s mojo after the Panthers led North Dakota State 23-10 after three quarters. All of the Panthers’ losses have been agonizing — a 24-23 heartbreaker to the Bison before three consecutive overtime defeats.
From a McNeese perspective, fans should hope UNI gets its groove back and finishes strong. If the Cowboys are able to beat Southeastern Louisiana this week — and that is the farthest thing from a given imaginable — the Southland title is no longer the biggest goal staring this team in the face.
With a win over the Lions, the Cowboys will be able to focus on putting themselves in prime position for a top-4 seed that would guarantee a first-round bye and potential home-field advantage at Cowboy Stadium through the national quarterfinals.
There’s still a chance that will happen anyway. Having the lone loss of the year still coming to a fellow playoff team would just make it more of a cinch.
Of course, if you are rooting for UNI to make a late-season run, it may be best to hope it is one that ends up on the other side of the bracket. You can never be too safe in a season where things seem to turn on a dime.
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Alex Hickey covers McNeese State athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org