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Gazzolo Column: Cowboys still have a lot to play for

Last Modified: Saturday, November 02, 2013 10:51 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Fall winds blew a chilling dose of reality on McNeese State.

The Cowboys’ revival, while clearly underway, is far from complete.

A bright October, one that brought hope and excitement with each victory, has exited and a cold truth that this team is still a work in progress greets November.

This was proven when Southeastern Louisiana slapped McNeese down to size Saturday night, handing the Cowboys their first loss in five weeks and, more importantly, the first in Southland Conference play.

The 41-7 shellacking was as complete as it was surprising.

“I don’t know what happened,” said senior Cowboys defensive lineman Chris Loveless. “They just kicked our butts. They outplayed us and outreached us.”

With a championship within its grasp, and all the goodies that go along with such a prize, McNeese sleep walked through a first half and never really awoke.

It was as if the Cowboys decided on the first blustery night of the season they would just roll over, hit the snooze button and stay in bed.

“I didn’t see this coming,” said McNeese head coach Matt Viator. “We had a great week of work. We had effort out there, we just didn’t execute. Give them credit, they just beat us.”

Even their quiet protest at the end of the first half ended with a shanked field goal and loss of any momentum that had been gained by an earlier touchdown and interception.

What makes this so confusing is you didn’t see this coming.

A week ago a letdown could have been explained, understood, dealt with. But not this time. Not after last year’s gut-wrenching loss at Southeastern. And clearly not with so much on the line.

The only thing more confusing is the targeting rule on the FCS level.

One man’s targeting penalty appears to be another’s good hit.

Twice Saturday night the officials huddled after flags where thrown, deciding on a targeting call and unnecessary roughness. They split their decisions and both went against McNeese.

That says all you need to know about this game, nothing went right for the Cowboys.

Let’s be clear, neither call was the reason for the loss. This game was lost early and by one simple fact, the Lions were the more physical team.

Maybe in the long run that won’t hold true, but on this night, in this game, Southeastern played rougher, tougher and won all of the important individual battles. The Lions were the aggressors, clearly kings of this jungle.

They played the role McNeese had rode for conference wins over the preseason co-favorites Sam Houston State and Central Arkansas.

But the Cowboys went from punchers to punching bags. Staggered by a pair of early turnovers, McNeese played the entire night on its heels.

Their offense, a machine for most of the year, blew a gasket and turned the ball over three times. Not once in the second half did it cross midfield.

Their defense, which had made big stops in key situations, was caught back peddling far too often.

McNeese could not stop the Lions on third down, as they made good on 10 of their first 15 on their way to a 27-point lead late in the third quarter.

While no white flag was waved, most of the crowd got the message and went home early, sending their own surrender statement. By game’s end, Southeastern fans’ chants could be heard loud and clear. It was the final message being sent.

Now comes the hope part of today’s Sunday sermon.

The loss, while ugly, is not the end of the world. It is not even the end of the season.

It might prove the beginning of the end, or just a bump in the road back to championship status for the Cowboys. It is up to them.

“We still have a lot to play for,” said Loveless. “We are still playing for a national title.”

Simple words of protest but true.

Here are the simple facts. At 7-2, 3-1, McNeese is no longer in control of its own title hopes. If they are to win a portion of the Southland the Pokes will need help, as Southeastern still has Sam Houston and UCA to play. So there is that.

Also, the Cowboys are done playing the league’s best and most would have been happy with this record at this time when the season started.

Most importantly, the goal of returning to the playoffs is still there, though a top national seed is much tougher now.

It is important the Cowboys learn the most important rule of all, to get over a bad night as quick as possible and move on. They can’t let Southeastern beat them two weeks in a row no matter how bad they got outplayed.

In plain terms, a hangover lasts a lot longer when you sit around and dwell on the night before.

• • •

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

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