Last Modified: Sunday, September 15, 2013 10:45 PM
I had seen the story too many times in the past couple of years.
So as the rest of Cowboy Stadium was exploding in euphoria following Diontae Spencer’s touchdown catch from Cody Stroud to give McNeese a 44-42 lead over West Alabama with 45 seconds left on Saturday night, I turned to the guy standing next to me on the sideline as the Cowboys lined up for the extra point.
“You know, this is actually a huge play,” I said.
No way. It was happening again. It seemed the kings of the painful 1-point loss were back in town. And before that thought could even finish being processed...
“Holy moly. Some guy from West Alabama is going to scoop the ball up and return it for 2 points. This game is going to be tied right here and the Tigers will get the ball to go for the win. Central Arkansas has nothing on this one.”
But history would not repeat itself, thanks to the one guy on the field that most people never notice — the holder. William Ryckman dove and knocked the ball out-of-bounds, prevented the return, and disaster was averted.
“That’s understanding the game,” said coach Matt Viator. “Those 2 points would have tied it. That was a huge play, there’s no doubt about it.”
As it turns out, it was also a heads-up move by the coaching staff to have Ryckman as the holder. Many teams use a backup quarterback or a punter in the spot, and in this case you wonder if either would have had the speed to beat the Tigers to the ball like the senior wide receiver did.
Even at that moment, the Cowboys were certainly not out of the woods. UWA had two timeouts and had already exploded for more than 500 yards against a defense that was grabbing the air as much as Tiger ballcarriers.
But the unit lived up to its billing on the final drive, recording back-to-back sacks to remove any chance of UWA driving into field-goal range.
For all of the above reasons, this was McNeese’s most impressive win of the year.
Seemingly every season, you can count on the Cowboys winning a game they weren’t expected to — Appalachian State in 2009, Middle Tennessee State last season, South Florida this year. Even their effort in a loss at LSU in 2010 fits the category of stepping up to meet the favorite’s level of play.
But it has been games like Saturday that have been McNeese’s Achilles heel, most recently with the 1-point losses against Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana last season.
Another that comes to mind is the Texas State loss in 2011. By some miracle, the Cowboys got the ball at the 13 after a bad snap on a Bobcat punt with 15 seconds remaining.
Down 21-14, a young Cody Stroud had a chance to complete the unthinkable. But the moment was too big. The pocket collapsed. Stroud’s desperation heave to no one drew an intentional grounding flag, and 10 seconds ran off the clock.
Now a senior, Stroud owned the moment on Saturday night. From about the same spot on the field where he was engulfed by Texas State’s defense, he calmly flicked the winner to Spencer in the end zone.
“I’ve been in the situation before. (The difference) is confidence,” Stroud said. “We have a great group of guys that make plays. Coach put the guys where he wanted them and we executed very well.”
Some people — i.e., the 5,000 who weren’t in attendance that were at the season opener — will probably say, “Well, we were supposed to win this one. It never should have been that close against a Division II school.”
But to discount West Alabama as “just a Division II school” is to do the same to McNeese when it plays an FBS opponent.
Ignore the labels. This was easily the most talented squad the Cowboys have faced this season. Their speed and execution was far beyond anything displayed by South Florida or Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Is there a lot for the Cowboys to clean up? Yes. They will not beat teams like Sam Houston State, Central Arkansas or Northern Iowa if they continue giving up so many plays over 20 yards on defense. You can throw Southeastern into that group too.
The upside is sloppy play is something that can be cleaned up with practice. The experience of beating a quality opponent in the final 2 minutes of a close game cannot be simulated.
After the frustration of last year, the Cowboys now know they’re capable of doing so. And that may ultimately be the ability by which this season is measured.
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Alex Hickey covers McNeese State athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org