Home openers not so sweet home for MSU

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2005

If McNeese State looked like a FCS Top 25 team on Saturday night, then I look like George Clooney, write like Frank Deford, drive the ball off the tee like Dustin Johnson and eat vegetables like my mother told me.

Needless to say, the Cowboys didn’t jump up on my ballot in this week’s poll after their less-than-glorious 31-17 win against Division II newbie Sioux Falls.

The good news — and there actually is some — is that this season is still young enough for all those things to change. Well, at least the one pertaining to McNeese being a Top 25 team.

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For whatever reason, getting off to an uncomfortable start in the home opener has become a McNeese tradition, with 2009’s 27-24 win against Henderson State and last year’s 30-27 win against Lamar proving to be even more harrowing than the Sioux Falls experience.

This one never felt as easy as it could have thanks to some crucial mistakes by the offense.

The Cowboys might have been able to put a stamp on this one early, but a red zone fumble on the exchange between Riley Dodge and Javaris Murray gave Sioux Falls the ball at the 10. The problem of getting close to the goal line but not punching the ball over was a recurring theme for McNeese last season, with the final possession at Central Arkansas — four cracks from inside the 5 — serving as the most frustrating example.

The next two McNeese turnovers brought the Cougars back into the game. Cody Stroud can’t be blamed for the fumble that was recovered by Sioux Falls at the McNeese 21 — if he’s Tom Brady and this is a playoff game, that thing is called an incomplete pass.

However, his throw that resulted in a Sioux Falls pick-six two plays later was a lot harder to excuse. It didn’t end up being a crippling mistake, but against a stronger squad it is exactly the kind of play that could have turned the tide of the game for good.

Still, McNeese was turnover-free at Kansas, so perhaps these turnovers aren’t something that will turn into habit.

What is becoming a scary habit is the lack of production from the running game.

The rushing attack was taken away from McNeese by a much bigger Kansas front line. Against little Sioux Falls, it still wasn’t particularly productive despite a concerted effort to make it work. The Cowboys averaged only 3 yards per carry on 44 attempts.

It’s true that Champlain Babin was out with an injury, and he’s an important part of the equation. But there is not really a drop-off in talent when you plug in Andre Anderson, Marcus Wiltz or Javaris Murray. Something isn’t right here.

Coach Matt Viator and offensive lineman Jonathan Landry both agreed that the Cowboys need to get more consistency from their ground game. And they think it will happen.

“We didn’t play as well as I would like on offense, but I still think we have a chance with this team,” Viator said.

“It was a little rough after that bye week,” Landry said. “Now that we’re getting back into rhythm of things, I think that the run game is just going to grow.”

There were some positives to be taken from Saturday.

For one, Sioux Falls coach Jed Stugart said his team finally played close to its full potential after coming out a little shell-shocked in its first two games at the Division II level. I suspect you’ll see the Cougars doing pretty well from here on out, and the closeness of this game might not end up feeling as underwhelming as it does now.

Another positive is that the Cowboys definitely have the most explosive wide receiving corps they’ve possessed since Quentin Lawrence and Steven Whitehead graduated. Darius Carey and Ernest Celestie are both explosive playmakers, and Wes Briscoe is just clutch.

Also, the much-trumpeted McNeese defense played like a unit worth trumpeting.

After playing on their heels against Kansas and early on against Sioux Falls, the Cowboys finally seemed to flip a switch when Janzen Jackson stripped tight end Spenser Sailors after a first-down catch in the first quarter. From that point forward the Cowboys were in attack mode. This led to a couple of big plays for Sioux Falls when defenders overpursued and left spaces open, but mistakes like those can be corrected whereas a lack of speed or ill intention towards ballcarriers cannot be.

Is McNeese a playoff-caliber team?

Most likely. The proof just isn’t quite in the pudding yet. And with conference rival Southeastern Louisiana coming to town on Saturday, the time to get the recipe together is now.