Jacksonville State hands McNeese another early playoff exit

By By Alex Hickey / American Press

And so it ended up being like the last one. And the one before that. And the one before that. And the one before that.

McNeese State’s time-honored tradition of being emphatically knocked out of the playoffs was revisited on Saturday night,

with Jacksonville State doing the clubbing on this particular occasion.

The Gamecocks handed the Cowboys their fifth consecutive one-and-done playoff appearance in lopsided fashion, dominating McNeese

31-10.

“It’s hard to explain, obviously. I don’t even know where to start,” said McNeese head coach Matt Viator. “We played hard,

but did not execute the way we have or would like on offense.

“The most disappointing thing is if you lose, you want to lose playing your best. Not to take anything away from Jacksonville

State, but when you don’t play your best it’s disappointing. And that’s on me as a coach, because that’s my job.”

McNeese’s last five playoff losses are by a combined total of 180-47 — an average margin of 26.6 points per game. The Cowboys

have lost six straight dating to the 2002 Division I-AA national championship game, and four in a row under Viator.

It was ugly early and often Saturday night.

Jacksonville State sets a single-game school record with 11 sacks — seven of which came in the first half.

The Cowboys had allowed 14 sacks in their previous 12 games.

“The sacks were a by-product of getting behind the chains,” Viator said. “We’re not a second-and-13, third-and-15 team. That’s

just not who we are.”

Smothering secondary coverage bought the Gamecocks plenty of time to get to the quarterback.

“A lot of it for us starts with

coverage,” said JSU coach Bill Clark. “We like to play a lot of press

coverage, which you

don’t see a lot of. We knew we had to stop the running game first.

We had to get them in situations where they had to throw

the ball. Our pass rush was great in the first half, and then our

coverage was great. Some of those were coverage sacks.”

McNeese’s first drive provided a fairly accurate microcosm of the game.

After gaining 18 yards on two running plays, the Cowboys went to the air. It would have worked, but Cody Stroud badly underthrew

a wide-open Ernest Celestie. A fumbled shotgun snap sent McNeese back 11 yards, and then Stroud was picked off by Ketrick

Wolfe at the McNeese 34.

The Gamecocks gained 15 yards with an unsportsmanlike conduct call after the play, and JSU scored on their first offensive

play when Eli Jenkins hit Josh Barge on a 19-yard strike.

McNeese has been down that road before, with the opponent scoring first in 12 of 13 games this season. But this time the Cowboys

never got on track.

“I don’t want to be down 7-0, but it seems like we’ve been down 7-0 every game,” Viator said. “I thought we still had everything

ahead of us.”

McNeese converted one third down in the first half, and that was via penalty. The Gamecocks took a 21-0 lead into the locker

room, at which point many in the meager crowd of 5,036 decided to call it a night.

Despite being thoroughly dominated for most of the game, the Cowboys were somehow still alive until late.

McNeese found the end zone with 10:11 remaining, when Stroud hit Celestie on fourth-and-goal for a 10-yard touchdown to cut

the deficit to 24-10.

“I reminded them that at South Florida we put up 30-something in a quarter,” Stroud said. “We were capable of doing it. We

just had to get it done.”

The defense, which had kept the game

from spiraling out of control much sooner, could not hold this time. The

Gamecocks used

a steady diet of running back DaMarcus James to complete a

nine-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that put the game out of reach.

A 25-yard James gain on first-and-20 was the biggest backbreaker.

“My only goal was to get a first down, and after that have fun with it,” James said.

James finished with 127 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries.

Stroud was 18 of 40 for 255 yards with two interceptions and a lost fumble on the last of his 11 sacks.

“When you’re supposedly No. 4 in the country in offense and put up 10 points in a game in the playoffs, you’re probably not

going to win,” Stroud said.