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McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud at the end of the Cowboys' game against Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)<br>

McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud at the end of the Cowboys' game against Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Hickey Column: Cowboys struggling with slow starts

Last Modified: Monday, November 04, 2013 9:56 AM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

We all have some nasty habits that jump up and bite us.

For me, it’s procrastination. Just ask any of my editors.

I’ve managed to do OK in life despite this habit, though from time to time I wonder whether it has prevented me from actually accomplishing anything of significance. And then I realize I was supposed to be doing something else. Like writing a column.

The McNeese offense appears to be dealing with a similar issue.

Even in games where they score more than 50 points, the Cowboys have been slow out of the gates this season. McNeese has only scored on its opening possession once in the last six games.

For the season, McNeese is only outscoring its opponents 65-64 in the first quarter.

When the opponent is Nicholls, this isn’t such a problem. McNeese has outscored opponents by a cumulative 120 points in quarters 2-4.

But when it is a playoff-caliber opponent like Southeastern Louisiana, that nasty habit is liable to bite

“It’s been like that all year. I’ve spoke to the team about it. We know it’s happening,” said quarterback Cody Stroud. “I don’t know what it is. We’ve done it pretty much every game. We know we have to improve it if we want to make it far in the playoffs.

“We know we’re putting our defense in bad situations too early in the game. We had a few games where we got away with it. Sam Houston, the defense played great early in the game. But tonight we didn’t get away with it. It’s going to hurt us severely later on if we don’t fix it quickly.”

Saturday’s 41-7 loss to SLU was a carbon-copy of the 41-6 loss at Northern Iowa in many ways.

Both games got off to disastrous starts. At UNI, the Cowboys fumbled away the opening kickoff. Against SLU, it was the second play from scrimmage. The defense did its job both times, holding the opponent to field goal attempts despite being backed up the first time it took the field.

Yet for whatever reason, the offense never really recovered from its initial freak-out moment despite the defense’s best efforts to keep its finger in the dam.

Part of the answer may be that the Cowboy offense is more like Sam Houston State’s than it would appear at first glance.

Though the Cowboys are more balanced than the Bearkats, this season’s results have demonstrated that both are extremely uncomfortable when falling behind by a couple scores and becoming one-dimensional. The success of McNeese’s passing game is contingent on other teams respecting the run. When the run is gone, so are the Cowboys.

Granted, most teams don’t have the defense necessary to make that happen. UNI and SLU both have that because of their overwhelming physicality — and I don’t mean in the trenches.

Yes, the Panthers and Lions are certainly physical up front. But so were Weber State and West Alabama, and McNeese didn’t have much trouble hanging 40 on either of those teams.

The difference between UNI, SLU, and everyone else McNeese has played is their physicality on the outside. Both teams had strong cornerbacks with the ability to jam McNeese’s receivers at the line and disrupt their timing.

It is in games like these that the Cowboys have to get Nic Jacobs more involved in the middle of the field. Yes, you need extra help in protection against blitzing teams. But if no one else can get open, all you’re really protecting is more incompletions.

The Cowboys are still on pace to make the playoffs and host a home game. With some help in the last three weeks, they may even stumble back into a Top-8 seed.

No matter where they end up, the road will end if the offense can’t figure out how to start strong or move the ball against physical secondaries.

• • •

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

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