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Gazzolo Column: McNeese returns to elite status of Football Championship Subdivision

Last Modified: Saturday, October 19, 2013 11:59 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

On the night it threw a welcome home party for alumni, McNeese State also made a comeback.

The Cowboys announced their return to elite status in the Football Championship Subdivision with authority Saturday night.

Using power and precision, McNeese rolled second-ranked Sam Houston State and moved right into the driver’s seat of its own destiny.

A few months after missing the playoffs for the third straight year and hearing whispers of their own demise, the Cowboys are right back up on their saddle.

You can’t call last night’s 31-23 victory a coming-out party for the No. 9 Cowboys, who are sure to jump in the polls on Monday, but one definitely can make a case for it being a comeback special.

“We had a statement to make,” said senior defensive end Chris Loveless. “I think we made it to the conference and to the rest of the nation.”

Loveless, who led a relentless defense that hounded the Bearkats and kept their mighty offense in check, wasn’t sure why everybody was down on McNeese over the past few seasons.

“I don’t think we ever went anywhere,” he said. “We were always right here, playing hard. We just didn’t play up to McNeese standards.”

The Cowboys did Saturday night.

“We have fought our way back,” said sophomore linebacker Bo Brown. “It hasn’t always been easy but we stuck together and battled.”

For quarterback Cody Stroud, the fifth-year senior who has seen his ups and downs while on campus, this was a night to relish in a season that is becoming one to enjoy. He threw three touchdown passes, picking up the Cowboys each time they where challenged.

“We had a few down years, but a lot of that was injuries,” Stroud said. “I always believed we were a good team with good players. This year we just keep playing through everything.”

Much like this season, the Cowboys fought their way through adversity last night.

Each time Sam Houston scored in the second half McNeese answered with a touchdown drive to keep the Bearkats at bay.

“That was great to see the way the kids responded,” said McNeese head coach Matt Viator. “It says a lot about their attitude and desire.”

It can also be seen as a symbol for the year, as this team like the program has picked itself up, dusted itself off and found new life when it was needed most.

The coach stopped short of calling this a turning point in the program, rather referring it more to just another stepping stone.

“We’ve still got a lot of football to play,” Viator said. “A lot of things can happen.”

But now a lot of good things can be talked about after the way the Cowboys won this game.

Last night was a simple tug-of-war struggle that had to be earned when most where expecting a fast-paced game of tag. By winning, the Cowboys are clearly “It” once again in the Southland.

In their last two games they have beaten the league’s top two preseason favorites, taking over the role as lead dog.

While they may not want to think such thoughts, the bar has been raised at McNeese. No longer is making the playoffs good enough. No longer is a conference title the only goal.

McNeese now has a chance to play for something more.

Running the table would likely give the Cowboys a bye in the first round and then a home game in the second. That’s a far cry from last winter when talk of major changes was heard around town at office water coolers.

“We have played our way into a good position,” Loveless said.

At 6-1 overall, 2-0 in the conference, great things could be just ahead. However, Viator knows how quickly things can change.

“This was not the end of the season,” he said. “There are still five tough games to go. We have to play our best the rest of the way.”

Once the gold standard in the Southland, McNeese has seen its program tarnished by missing the postseason. San Houston filled the void with back-to-back runner-up finishes in the playoffs.

It seems only fitting then that it would be the Bearkats the Cowboys would have to wrestle the title back from.

“It is a big win,” Stroud said. “It means a lot, but it isn’t the end.”

Not if the Cowboys truly want to get back to elite status.

For that to happen, this can only be the beginning.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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