No. 9 Cowboys score huge win over second-ranked Bearkats

By By Alex Hickey / American Press

McNeese State is back in the Southland Conference saddle.

The ninth-ranked Cowboys beat No. 2 Sam Houston State at its own game Saturday night, completely stifling 2012 Walter Payton

Award finalist Timothy Flanders in a 31-23 win that puts McNeese (6-1, 2-0 Southland) atop the league standings.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” said McNeese head coach Matt Viator. “I told the players (Friday) night we’re not going to win or lose conference (Saturday), so relax and have fun. I can promise you Sam Houston

is still in the thick of it the way this league has played out. But to beat the two teams picked ahead of us to start out

is big.”

Flanders was limited to a non-injury related career-low of 22 yards on 11 carries, and Sam Houston (5-2, 1-1) was beaten by

a Football Championship Subdivision opponent in the regular season for only the second time in the last three years.

“I’m so proud of everybody,” said

Cowboys sophomore linebacker Bo Brown, who had two tackles for loss and a

sack. “We came

out and were the more physical team. We had that off week and

really went back to fundamentals. We had had some trouble with

tackling, and those drills paid off from the past two weeks.

“We definitely believed. We believe we’re better than anybody we step on the field with.”

McNeese counterpart Marcus Wiltz paced the Cowboys with 122 yards on 21 carries, while Cody Stroud provided the necessary

balance by completing 15 of 25 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns.

“The tables have turned,” Wiltz said. “It felt good. The game plan was to come in here and run the football, and we did that.”

The Bearkats were clearly taken out of their comfort zone by becoming a pass-first team after the Cowboys took a 21-9 lead

on Wiltz’s 4-yard touchdown run with 4:39 left in the third quarter.

The score was an enormous response for

the Cowboys after Sam Houston milked 8 minutes off the clock on the

opening drive of

the third quarter before settling for a 21-yard Luc Swimberghe

field goal. Though McNeese still owned a 14-9 advantage, the

offense knew it could not send a tired defense right back onto the

field with a three-and-out.

“We couldn’t come out flat,” Wiltz said. “They’re an explosive offense. You can’t give them an opportunity to put up points

and leave your defense out to dry.”

The key play of the drive was a 57-yard connection from Stroud to Diontae Spencer.

“We knew we had to score. They weren’t

going to lay down,” Stroud said. “They’re not second in the nation in

offense for nothing.

They have a good team. We had to respond.”

Sam Houston quarter Brian Bell was 23 of 36 for a career-high 315 yards, but Gabe Hamner’s interception with McNeese protecting

a 28-16 fourth-quarter lead was a blow the Bearkats could not overcome. It was the game’s lone turnover.

The Cowboys milked 5:48 off the clock on the ensuing possession before Ryan Rome hit a 33-yard field goal to make it a 15-point

lead.

Sam Houston breathed a last gasp when Bell hit Stephen WIlliams on an 18-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute to go, but David

Bush recovered the onside kick and Dylan Long rushed for a first down to ice the game.

The Bearkats were the highest-ranked team beaten by McNeese since the Cowboys knocked off second-ranked Appalachian State

in 2009.

McNeese and Southeastern Louisiana are the only remaining unbeatens in SLC play.

Sam Houston, which went in averaging 319 yards per game on the ground, was held to 85 rushing yards.