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(Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

(Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Viator confident Cowboys can get even better

Last Modified: Monday, September 09, 2013 10:12 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

McNeese State leads the FCS in scoring and has risen to No. 13 in The Sports Network national poll, but when coach Matt Viator looks at the Cowboys he sees a team that can get even better as it prepares for this week’s game against Division II national semifinalist West Alabama.

“I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Viator said. “It’s a lot of fun when you can go into a Sunday meeting and say, ‘Look, we can be so much better’ after a win.

“We have to continue to teach this group what it means to prepare. We have 125 guys on the roster, whether they’re hurt, walk-ons or whatever. We have 32 juniors and seniors. All these kids have played football, but where the experience comes in is how you prepare during a college football season.”

In many areas, the room for improvement seems minimal.

The offense has scored on 17 of its 23 possessions this season. The balance between running and passing has been ideal. McNeese is 20th in the country in rushing with 221.5 yards per game, and 23rd in passing with 254.5 yards per game.

The Cowboys lead the FCS in time of possession through two games, holding the ball an average of 38:09. That stat is a reflection of McNeese holding large second-half leads against South Florida and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, of course, but also demonstrates McNeese is capable of protecting those leads.

A stellar conversion percentage on third and fourth down explains how McNeese has eaten so much time off the clock. The Cowboys are a combined 23 of 37 (62.1 percent) in those scenarios this season.

Viator said that’s because McNeese has largely avoided negative yardage plays on first and second downs. Behind an inexperienced offensive line, Cody Stroud has yet to take a sack.

“We all look at third downs, but sometimes it’s a misleading number because it depends on what you did on first and second down,” Viator said. “We’ve been able to stay ahead of the chains.”

All these positives raise the question: um, what exactly is there to fix here?

There’s always something, and on both sides of the ball McNeese can get even better with "explosive plays."

Nic Jacobs’ 78-yard touchdown reception at South Florida and Ernest Celestie’s 33-yard touchdown catch against UAPB to cap a three-play, 59-yard drive are both examples of such plays, but Viator thinks the Cowboys will need even more of those as the season goes on.

“We didn’t have enough explosive plays last year,” Viator said. “We need to continue to build things in our scheme that we can take advantage of. It sounds good to have an 18-play drive like the other day, but it’s hard to sustain those week after week.”

The defense has made more than its share of big plays in the first two games, but has also surrendered a few. If an opposing team has scored on McNeese this year, a big play probably had something to do with it.

Of the five touchdowns scored against the Cowboys, four of the drives included a play of at least 40 yards.

Three of those possessions — USF’s 80-yard touchdown run on the season’s first play and UAPB’s two scoring drives — came on plays or schemes McNeese had not seen on film.

“We didn’t anticipate (UAPB) exclusively running no-huddle, which they didn’t do against Arkansas State when they were missing some players,” Viator said. “We were kind of misaligned a couple times, but I thought the defensive staff did a good job making some adjustments.”

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