McNeese State will learn its postseason plans on Sunday morning. But to assure themselves of an easy night’s rest, the Cowboys (9-2, 5-1 Southland) will first have to take care of business against rival Lamar (5-6, 2-4) in today’s 6 p.m. regular-season finale at Provost Umphrey Stadium in Beaumont, Texas.
The Cowboys are seemingly in line to earn one of the eight national seeds and a corresponding first-round bye in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, but won’t win that right if there’s a stumble against the Cardinals.
“In order to have a good run in the playoffs, we have to focus on this week and this week only,” said Cowboys quarterback Cody Stroud. “We can’t focus on what’s going to happen next week. If we have a slip-up this week, next week’s probably not going to look pretty.”
The Cardinals have not beaten McNeese in three meetings since resurrecting their football program in 2010. Last year was the most lopsided of those games as the Cowboys pitched a 35-0 shutout.
Neither squad is the same as a year ago, but that is especially true of the Cardinals.
Lamar’s passing attack has matured with junior quarterback Caleb Berry, who is second in the conference with 3,002 yards and 28 touchdowns.
“They’re not doing anything different, they’re just doing it better,” said McNeese head coach Matt Viator. “Caleb’s a year older and he’s going to be really good. It starts with him and he’s playing a lot better than last year.”
Sophomore receiver Reggie Begelton is Berry’s chief target. He leads the league in receptions after an 18-catch game in Lamar’s 46-45 win over Stephen F. Austin last week.
“I don’t even remember him from last year, to be honest,” Viator said. “But I’ve been watching him put up numbers all year. I don’t know where he came from or how he got here, but he’s certainly good.”
Begelton is a former walk-on whom Lamar head coach Ray Woodard said “wouldn’t go away.”
The Cardinals are also more formidable up front, said McNeese defensive end Chris Loveless.
“Their offensive line has improved a lot. They have a lot more size. Last year they had some guys that were 3-4 inches shorter than me,” the 6-foot-4 Loveless said.
Viator said he’s more concerned about the size on the other side of the ball. He said Lamar’s secondary has comparable length to the Northern Iowa and Southeastern Louisiana units that helped hand McNeese its two losses.
That issue could be neutralized if Lamar is unable to stop the run, which has frequently proven to be the case this year. Conference opponents are averaging 215 yards a game on the ground against the Cardinals. Only Nicholls State has been worse against the run.
That is one of McNeese’s greatest strengths, as Marcus Wiltz leads the league in rushing with 106.5 yards per game. The Cowboys are averaging 214.3 yards a game on the ground, and both Wiltz and Kelvin Bennett surpassed the century mark last week.
“I think their strength is they don’t have any weaknesses,” Woodard said of the Cowboys. “But being McNeese, we’re going to be ready for Saturday.”