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McNeese State head football coach Matt Viator. (American Press)

McNeese State head football coach Matt Viator. (American Press)

Hickey: Grading the Cowboys at the midpoint of season

Last Modified: Saturday, October 06, 2012 11:41 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

The midpoint of McNeese State’s football season will technically come at halftime of next week’s game against Central Arkansas. Unfortunately, this presents an awkward time to publish a midterm report card for the Cowboys, so you’ll just have to deal with the fact we’re providing you one a full 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

QUARTERBACK (Grade: B+): If Cody Stroud isn’t the most valuable player for McNeese, he is certainly the most improved. Stroud has gone from the bottom of the Southland Conference in passing efficiency to near the top. He’ll match last season’s total with one more touchdown pass, and is making more plays with his legs than ever before. He’s about as effective a game manager as one can be now.

He’s had a few misfires, but even the two interceptions he’s thrown were the result of great defensive plays rather than horrible throws.The most glaring negative was his inability to connect on four consecutive cracks at the end zone to end the first half at Southeastern Louisiana. Completing any one of them likely would have erased McNeese’s lone loss. Ultimately, though, that says more about how well he has done — the Cowboys are one play away from being undefeated.

RUNNING BACK (A-): It’s been an outstanding showing for the rushing attack, which is averaging 247.4 yards per game. The Cowboys have the most diverse rushing arsenal in the conference, with all three members of the BMW backfield — (Champlain) Babin, (Javaris) Murray and (Marcus) Wiltz — ranked in the top eight in the league individually. It’s no coincidence the lone loss came in the lone game when only two of the three could play.

The Cowboys need better ball protection from Babin, however. He’s lost a fumble in three consecutive games, which takes the group down from a full-blown A grade.

WIDE RECEIVERS (A): If you get the ball into the hands of one of McNeese’s wideouts, odds are it will be a first down. Stroud’s top three receiving targets are each averaging at least 15 yards per catch. There have been a few key drops here and there, but nothing that has killed the Cowboys.

TIGHT ENDS (A): The tight ends don’t have a ton of catches, but they know how to make them count. Two of Josh Jordan’s five catches are touchdowns, as is one of Kendale Thomas’ three grabs. Thomas also had a key grab on the successfully executed 2-minute drill to end the first half against Weber State.

OFFENSIVE LINE (A): After a tough 2011, the line reasserted itself to start the season as the Cowboys ran for at least 290 yards in their first three games. The line looked its best during an 18-play, 64-yard drive against Northwestern State that took 9 minutes off the clock — although ultimately the Cowboys had to settle for a field goal.

McNeese is second in the conference in sacks allowed with six through five games. The Cowboys rated seventh in the league last year, allowing 37 in 11 games.

DEFENSIVE LINE (A+): McNeese is tops in the league against the run, allowing 2.1 yards per carry. Sophomore end Everett Ellefsen has been huge with seven tackles for loss. The line has contributed seven of the team’s nine sacks, with three coming from Ellefsen. The Cowboys had 11 sacks all of last season.

LINEBACKERS (A): This group has played a key role in run support. Deonte Thompson and Hayden Dobbs each rank in the top four on the team in tackles. Joe Narcisse has battled injuries but is the defense’s emotional leader. He leads the linebackers with three tackles for loss despite missing most of two games. His biggest TFL came in the opener at Middle Tennessee, which forced the Blue Raiders to kick a field goal after marching inside the 5 on their first possession.

SECONDARY (A-): There’s been plenty of big plays, like Guy Morgan’s key interception at Weber State, Ford Smesny’s pick to beat Northwestern State and Chris Raggett setting a school record with a pair of interception returns for scores against McMurry. Terrence Cahee has been everywhere, breaking up seven passes — no other Cowboy has more than two.

Injuries have certainly hurt this group, though. McNeese could not stop Southeastern Louisiana on third-and-long in the second half without Morgan, Smesny and Malcolm Bronson on the field. The Cowboys also allowed a pair of 40-yard-plus touchdown passes against Northwestern. The bye week should provide more reps for backups and a chance for Morgan to get closer to 100 percent.

SPECIAL TEAMS (C): Good or bad, you can’t take your eyes off the special teams unit.

Freshman Jean Breaux has been a revelation with three punts longer than 50 yards and nine downed inside the opposing 20. Opposing punters have downed McNeese inside its own 20 five times. Breaux has also sent 11 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

He’ll have to send even more over the goal line in the second half of the year, because when opponents have returned a McNeese kickoff it has been largely disastrous. The Cowboys are 109th in the nation in defending kick returns, allowing an average 27.48-yard run back.

Josh Lewis has been up and down, hitting seven of his 12 field-goal attempts with one blocked. Another was wiped out by a false-start penalty that pushed the Cowboys back 5 yards and resulted in a miss, yet another play that would have beaten SLU.

The Cowboys have converted a first down on a fake punt, and allowed a pair on fake punts in consecutive weeks.

An illegal substitution on a SLU extra-point attempt allowed the Lions to move closer to the goal line and go for 2 and the 25-24 win.

Any semblance of consistency is a must for the special teams in the second half.

COACHING (B-): Offensive line coach Rob Sale and defensive line coach Manny Michel have done a fantastic job turning those units around this season. Head coach Matt Viator’s offseason work with Stroud has also paid off. Starting the year with a win over a quality Football Bowl Subdivision opponent is also a feather in the coaching staff’s hat.

In terms of strategy, there is room for improvement. Viator admitted to getting too conservative against Middle Tennessee State in the fourth quarter, which combined with a long kickoff return allowed the Blue Raiders to get back into the game. He also said he needed to make better calls at the end of the first half the past two games.

McNeese was in position for touchdowns that could have knocked out SLU and Northwestern State, but settled for field goals on each occasion to provide the opponent with momentum.

If the Cowboys have a chance to go for the jugular in their next three games — against UCA, at Sam Houston State and then against Stephen F. Austin — they must grab it. At the end of the season, those three games will have the most bearing on how this team grades out.

•••

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

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