(Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Sunday, October 28, 2012 11:03 PM
With the season on the line, McNeese State came through.
The Cowboys beat Stephen F. Austin for the first time in four seasons, 35-24, to win homecoming and mathematically keep themselves in the Football Championship Subdivision playoff picture.
“In ’09, when we split the conference with them because of that loss, it broke my heart,” said senior offensive lineman Miguel Gauthreaux. “Then, in 2010, we lose on some fluke stuff. It just feels good to finish it off tonight because they’re a good program with some good teams over the years.”
McNeese (5-3, 2-3 Southland) snapped a two-game skid, which included a last-minute loss to Central Arkansas at home two weeks ago. There was an eerie resemblance to that game when Marcus Wiltz ran roughshod for a 35-yard touchdown with 3 minutes remaining to give the Cowboys a two-score lead.
But this time there were no miracles for the visitors to pull out of their hats, as the McNeese defense forced the Lumberjacks to turn it over on downs with a minute to play.
“The kids just hung in there,” said Cowboys head coach Matt Viator. “We beat a good football team tonight.”
Despite allowing 529 yards of offense, the Cowboys defense made plays when it needed to.
Wiltz’s game-icing touchdown was set up by a Seth Thomas interception, which in turn was set up by a Kevin Dorn sack on the previous play that put the Lumberjacks in a third-and-long situation.
“Any time you can make that sack to put them behind the chains, that’s a big play,” Viator said. “That’s huge.”
Ryan Bronson also intercepted SFA quarterback Brady Attaway, who finished 42 of 68 for 378 yards.
Bronson nearly had a second turnover in the fourth quarter when a Lumberjacks fumble bounced right between his hands before getting recovered by SFA.
“It went right in my hands,” Bronson said. “It hit my cast, and slipped right by because I don’t have all my fingers. But we had to keep our heads in there and know we’d get a big play from someone. Later, we got it.”
Instead of being the moment that turned things against the Cowboys, the defense stiffened to force a punt after Bronson’s near-miss. Cornerback Aaron Sam set the tone early, forcing and recovering a Gus Johnson fumble at the SFA 11 in the first quarter. That play set up Cody Stroud’s 11-yard pass to Wes Briscoe to put McNeese up 7-0.
Viator admitted there were moments when the team’s confidence waned in the past two weeks, but Sam’s defensive play was vital to getting it back.
“That was important,” Viator said. “I thought the fact we got three turnovers, and didn’t turn it over, was key.”
McNeese led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, but against SFA’s explosive offense no margin is safe.
The Lumberjacks (3-5, 2-2) tied the score at 14 before Stroud found a wide-open Josh Jordan in the end zone on a 20-yard pass with 1:16 left in the second quarter.
SFA jumped ahead in the third quarter thanks to a 1-yard Doug Gentry run and a 20-yard Jordan Wiggs field goal.
However, the Lumberjacks’ lead was short-lived. McNeese responded with an eight-play, 54-yard drive that culminated in a 15-yard pass from Stroud to Kenny Brown. It was the first career catch for the St. Louis Catholic grad.
Stroud finished 19 of 28 for 188 yards and three touchdowns. Wiltz led the ground attack with 111 yards on 19 carries. He carried an SFA tackler 10 yards into the end zone on his late touchdown run.
“He has that inner strength inside of him,” Gauthreaux said. “He’s not gonna give up. When he goes and he’s dragging guys into the end zone, he has the mentality like a lineman.”