Last Modified: Monday, September 23, 2013 12:00 PM
Things are looking pretty good for McNeese State, which is 4-0 to start the season for the first time in six years.
But, we won’t know how strong these Cowboys really are until one month from today.
The three games coming up in the next four weeks will determine whether McNeese has returned to their old place among the nation’s FCS elite, the Southland Conference’s elite — or just another in a recent run of teams that have been good but were unable to clear the hurdle to “great.”
The way the first four games have played out, it seems any outcome is possible. McNeese may be good enough to run the gauntlet of Northern Iowa, Central Arkansas and Sam Houston State. It’s conceivable the Cowboys could drop all three. The most likely result lies somewhere between the two extremes.
If the Cowboys do make it through this brutal stretch, it will be because they continue doing the things that have gone right in the season’s first month while minimizing the handful of mistakes that have the potential to prove costly in games where one play ultimately makes the difference.
Thus far, the hallmark of this team is its ability to put points on the scoreboard. Remarkably, the 43 points scored in Saturday’s win against Weber State marked a season-low for the Cowboys.
It’s a mark of how explosive this team is that they could struggle to move the ball as much as they did in the first half and still win going away, eclipsing the 500-yard mark for the third-straight week.
“We know what we’re capable of,” said wide receiver Ernest Celestie. “Every week’s not going to be a blowout. But when you prepare the way we do and come out and execute, you’ve got to expect to be able to score on any given play. It’s awesome to come out in the second half and hit that gear and get 43 points out of nowhere.”
To paraphrase Journey, the offense can get it done any way you want it.
There was a near-perfect run-pass balance in the first two wins. Cody Stroud took over with his arm to beat West Alabama. And it was 363 rushing yards that did the trick against Weber.
You want weapons? The Cowboys are working with a full arsenal.
Weber was totally determined to shut down Diontae Spencer this week with extra-physical coverage, and succeeded in holding him to one catch for 2 yards.
That just opened the door for Ernest Celestie, who burned them for 129 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
The tandem of Marcus Wiltz and Dylan Long did most of McNeese’s ground work in the first three weeks, but Weber proved to be an advantageous matchup for speedy Kelvin Bennett, who was gone as soon as he found a seam on two long touchdown runs.
McNeese is also making big plays on the other side of the ball, with a pair of safeties and interception returns for touchdowns. The Cowboys are tied for ninth in the country with a plus-6 turnover margin, sixth in the nation with seven interceptions, and are 16th with 3.25 sacks per game.
The bugaboo on defense has been the susceptibility to the big play, especially early. Opponents have scored on plays longer than 45 yards on the opening drive of three games.
That is especially an area of concern for the games against UCA and Sam Houston. The Bears and Bearkats both have playmakers quick enough to make a good team look bad.
Then again, if the offense continues to click as it has, maybe McNeese can get away with it. But generally you only want to play with fire for so long.
Against Northern Iowa, the battle up front is likely where the game will be decided. After looking like a veteran group the first two weeks, the McNeese offensive line actually looked its youthful age a few times against West Alabama and Weber State.
Both of those teams had stout defensive fronts, as does UNI, which averages 4.67 sacks per game — the highest number in the country outside of two Ivy League teams who have only played one game.
There is also the matter of cleaning up a strange rash of eight false starts from Saturday night, something that will not be easy to do in the din of a domed environment in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
The Cowboys certainly look like a playoff team right now. But it will be the next three games that determine whether they are.
• • •
Alex Hickey covers McNeese State athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org