McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, September 14, 2013 11:41 PM
They weren’t all going to be easy.
But McNeese State fans are surely hoping the rest won’t be quite like this.
Division II West Alabama was more than ready to step up its game Saturday night, and McNeese needed a 20-yard touchdown pass from Cody Stroud to Diontae Spencer with 45 seconds left to pull out a heart-stopping 44-42 win. The teams combined for 150 plays and more than 1,000 yards of total offense.
“I’m just glad to get a win,” said a relieved Matt Viator, Cowboys head coach. “We’re 3-0, and I’ll take it. I was scared to death of this team, and nobody (in the public) believed me. I think our kids did. But it’s hard to simulate what they did with their quarterback running and releasing it at the last second like he did.”
Stroud led the Cowboys 66 yards in nine plays and 2:55 for the winning touchdown.
“As we took the field, I told our guys ‘We know we’re the No. 1 offense in the land,’” Stroud said. “Now we just have to prove it.”
The Cowboys (3-0) answered a go-ahead score by the Tigers with 3:41 remaining. Gary Johnston put UWA (1-1) up 42-38 on a 2-yard run just one play after a dramatic 30-yard connection from Kyle Caldwell to Seth Roberts on third-and-25.
“It was just two great football teams spilling it out on the field,” said UWA coach Will Hall. “We might have two national champions here tonight — one in Division II and one in FCS. I’m serious.”
The wild game was far from over when Spencer caught the ball in the end zone to complete the comeback drive.
UWA blocked the ensuing extra point, and had a chance to return the ball for 2 points that would have tied the game at 44. But holder William Ryckman alertly raced after the ball toward the sideline and knocked it out of bounds to prevent the Tigers from getting their hands on it.
“Your stomach drops when you hear the block,” Ryckman said. “You just have to go with your instincts. I ran as hard as I could, because I knew I was closest to the ball.”
Though the Tigers needed to only get into field-goal range for the win, they never got the chance as Brody Buckhalter and Everett Ellefsen sacked UWA quarterback Kyle Caldwell on consecutive plays.
Caldwell proved pretty elusive outside of that drive, showing a Manziel-like ability to keep plays alive as if Louis Bonnette Field was a schoolyard. Caldwell was 13 of 20 for 300 yards and three touchdowns.
“He was quick. He’s a great player,” said McNeese defensive tackle Michael Ware. “He’s going to do good this year. We had to make sure to wrap him up and not go for the play-fake. He’s small and he’s quick and got out of tackles.”
Ware said McNeese did not take West Alabama lightly. The Tigers simply had that much talent despite only having 36 scholarships to McNeese’s 63.
“We gave them all the respect,” he said. “They just hit us with a few things that we weren’t quite ready for. We had to adjust and keep fighting.”
UWA added 265 rushing yards on 50 attempts.
The Tigers were stymied by a pair of second-half turnovers on the McNeese side of the 50 — a Gabe Hamner interception at the 16 and a Ware fumble recovery at the 28.
“We lost the turnover battle, and that was the difference in the game,” Hall said. “It was a war between two championship programs.”
McNeese had enough offense to counter UWA’s prodigious attack. Cody Stroud and Tyler Bolfing combined for a school-record 406 passing yards. Stroud was 30 of 43 for 366 yards, and Bolfing complete his only pass for 40 yards.
Stroud tied Tim Leger, Kerry Joseph and Scott Pendarvis in the school single-game record book with five touchdown passes.
The Cowboys had 503 total yards on 80 plays.
McNeese won its previous two games, against FBS South Florida and FCS Arkansas-Pine Bluff, by more than 30 points.
Despite being a level lower, the Tigers appeared to have more weapons than either of those teams.
“They could match us speed-wise everywhere,” Viator said. “They were scary.”