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Hickey Column: Special teams have been just that for McNeese

Last Modified: Monday, September 09, 2013 5:18 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

This could end up being a special season for McNeese State, and special teams may be the reason.

Last season started much like this one as the Cowboys knocked off an FBS opponent to create some early excitement. But even though McNeese has the same 2-0 record it did at this point a year ago, it is in no way identical.

When the Cowboys beat Middle Tennessee State last year, the showing on special teams raised a red flag. The game should have been a blowout in the vein of last week’s smashing of South Florida, but the Blue Raiders used a pair of long kick returns to keep themselves within striking distance despite being outplayed on offense and defense.

At the time, it seemed like it was just one of those areas where the FBS team’s numbers advantage was the difference. But in agonizing 1-point losses to Southeastern Louisiana and Central Arkansas, key plays on special teams helped sink McNeese by the narrowest of margins.

The Cowboys finished the year ranked 104th in the country in average yards allowed on kickoff returns.

Two games into this season, McNeese rates 24th in the nation in the same category.

Arkansas-Pine Bluff opened five straight possessions on Saturday inside its own 20 on kick returns. One of those — an ill-advised return out of the end zone that ended at the 7-yard line — set up the game-changing play.

The Cowboys scored on a safety, then added a touchdown on the ensuing possession to break the game open.

The 7 was lucky for McNeese at South Florida as well. The Bulls made a similarly poor decision to bring the ball out on a kickoff and only got out to the 7-yard line. That’s where Bo Brown recovered a fumble on the first play of the possession, and once again the game swung dramatically into McNeese’s favor.

“Coach (Slade) Nagle has done a fantastic job with special teams,” said head coach Matt Viator. “We tried to emphasize it last year, but maybe we didn’t go far enough. We work phases every single solitary day trying to get this right. We have good talent. We have good kickers and good returners. Fortunately the players have bought into that this is where we needed our biggest improvement, which is what we told them all offseason.”

It’s not just the return defense where McNeese is making its mark on special teams.

Diontae Spencer had no receptions against UAPB, yet still proved to be one of the biggest difference-makers due to his return skills. Spencer finished with 162 yards on four kickoff returns.

“When he changes the field that drastic, it helps us out a lot,” said quarterback Cody Stroud. “The whole offense feels like half the job is done already. He’s a big playmaker no matter what.”

His 80-yard return set the Cowboys up in the red zone for their go-ahead touchdown, and his return to midfield following the safety gave them stellar field position once again.

“Coach Nagle did a good job this week of letting me know where the hole was going to be and what they were doing on kickoffs,” Spencer said. “It was just a matter of hitting it with speed.”

Being solid in all three phases is what separates great teams from good ones. If McNeese continues playing special teams like it has in the first two games, they can be the former.

• • •

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

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