McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, October 12, 2013 8:27 PM
We’re halfway through the season, and with McNeese State ranked ninth in the country it’s obvious that the Cowboys have done a lot of things right.
As a 5-1 record shows, it hasn’t been perfect. Anything that could go wrong did in a 41-6 loss at Northern Iowa, and the Panthers obviously found some things that other teams may try to exploit in the future. We’ll just have to see if any of those teams have the talent to pull it off quite so well.
The UNI game aside, it has been a sterling first half, highlighted by blowout wins over Football Bowl Subdivision South Florida and Southland Conference rival Central Arkansas. Even the 44-42 win over Division II West Alabama is looking pretty darn good after the Tigers worked D-II’s top-ranked team, Valdosta State, by a 49-30 margin.
So it will come as little surprise that the Cowboys have turned in a good set of grades on their midterm exam.
A Some — possibly even those writing in this space — never thought it would happen. But Cody Stroud has become the straw that stirs the drink in his senior year. Commander Cody is seventh in the nation in passing efficiency, and has targeted every eligible target on the field at some point. His late-game comeback drive against West Alabama showed he could get it done in the clutch.
Tyler Bolfing did a nice job in his one drive a game during nonconference play, but Stroud has firmly established this as his team.
A When your No. 3 running back ranks in the national top 50 in rushing touchdowns, you’re clearly having some success on the ground. Marcus Wiltz is clearly the best back in the league not named Timothy Flanders, and if Kelvin Bennett finds a seam, he’s gone. The performance of bruiser fullback Dylan Long has been this year’s revelation, and the return of Javaris Murray makes this the deepest group of backs in the Southland.
A- If teams try to shut down Diontae Spencer, Ernest Celestie will step up. And vice versa. The loss of Wes Briscoe to injury is significant, but Jereon McGilvery and David Bush have shown signs of being effective third options. This group struggled to break free against a physical UNI secondary, but has played well otherwise.
A The presence of Nic Jacobs changes everything. Defenses must respect his combination of speed and size. If they respect it too much, the receiving corps can tear teams apart. Kendale Thomas and Zach Hetrick have also done well as blockers, which allowed the shift of Long from fullback to tailback and turned him into a much greater asset.
A- If we graded on a curve, this group would be getting an A+. You can’t ask for anything more from three new starters, including two who were defensive linemen last year. But there have been the inevitable spurts when youth has shown, such as a rash of false starts against Weber State and a snap that went 20 yards behind Stroud at UNI.
A- Two years ago, the Cowboys had 11 sacks. All year. That total was upped to 21 last season, and that number is on pace to be surpassed. McNeese went into Saturday with 15 sacks, which was one behind Lamar and Southeastern Louisiana for tops in the conference. Everett Ellefsen leads the league in sacks and is second in tackles for loss. The play of the year for this group was Kevin Dorn’s interception of a ball batted by Chris Loveless at UCA.
B- McNeese is allowing 172 yards a game on the ground, which is the third-worst mark in the league. It could be the nature of a 4-2-5 scheme, but many tackles on running plays have been made by defensive backs. Brody Burkhalter had a huge late-game sack against West Alabama, but this position is the closest thing to an Achilles Heel for the Cowboys.
B The toughest bunch to grade. The Cowboys have been burned for big plays in every game but are often able to counter it with an even bigger play by a defensive back. Guy Morgan’s pick-six against USF and Ryan Bronson’s 98-yard score at UCA were both turning points in those victories.
This also speaks to the story at linebacker, but McNeese is the only team in the conference whose leading tackler is a defensive back. In fact, the Cowboys’ top three tacklers — Terence Cahee, Guy Morgan and Aaron Sam — are DBs.
A- Like everyone else, the special teams unit had a rough time of it at Northern Iowa. This is clearly the area where McNeese has made the most strides. Even the potential worst special teams moment of the year — a blocked extra point against West Alabama that could have been returned for two points the other way to tie the score — was averted thanks to holder William Ryckman knocking the ball out of bounds.
Of note: Jean Breaux leads the league with 18 touchbacks on his kickoffs. Opposing kickers only have two against McNeese.
A Matt Viator’s biggest offseason goal was finding a way to keep players on the field after a rash of injuries helped derail the past few seasons. Other than the loss of Briscoe, which probably would have required one of Superman’s knees to prevent, that goal has been accomplished.
Putting Slade Nagle in charge of special teams has worked. Ditching the I-formation for a rotation of single backs has worked. Perhaps most impressive was getting the team’s focus back after a blowout loss at UNI for the program’s first-ever win at UCA.
There is a long road ahead, but Viator has pushed all the right buttons.