McNeese State Cowboys quarterback Cody Orgeron (8) carries for a large gain during their game at Cowboy Stadium in Lake Charles, La., Saturday, Aug.31, 2019. (Rick Hickman/Lake Charles American Press)

In the past few weeks, McNeese State's passing game has gotten going compared to how it was the first four games of the season.

After throwing for 686 yards in their first four games, an average of 171.5 yards per game, the Cowboys have thrown for 528 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games.

Cowboys head coach Sterlin Gilbert and quarterback Cody Orgeron said the numbers are closer to the offense that everybody expected to see going into the season, with a balance of passing and running. They said they believe that everybody is starting to get more comfortable in the offense because everybody is in their first season running it.

"That's a huge part of it," Gilbert said. "Being able to run the ball like we did was huge. (Elijah) Mack had a really big night. You don't have those kind of nights without those five guys up front. Those guys did a great job. Then we were able to execute some throws down the field, which was huge. Just creating that rhythm and tempo that we do like to see. Every week, we've gotten better on that side of the ball. That was probably the best we've played all season (against Southeastern Louisiana)."

The Cowboys are looking to put together another solid offensive game when they travel to take on Central Arkansas (3-2, 1-1 Southland Conference) Saturday afternoon at Estes Stadium in Conway. But the Bears defense, about middle of the pack statistically in the SLC, is different than the last two defenses McNeese (3-3, 1-2 SLC) has gone up against.

While SLU and Sam Houston State like to challenge opposing offenses with a lot of man-to-man coverage without a lot of safety help — which can lead to big offensive plays if the quarterback can make the throw and the wide receiver can beat the cornerback — Gilbert said UCA prefers a more risk-averse offense, often playing with two deep safeties and daring an offense to drive down the field with long drives instead of big plays.

"Last couple years, they've played a bend-don't-break type of defense," senior offensive lineman Grant Burguillos said. "They're not going to send blitzes every play, but they're going to hold you down to limit the big plays. It's going to be a good game, it always is."

The next major step in the evolution of McNeese's offense is to pick apart a defense that won't let the Cowboys throw the ball deep for big gains. Despite that, Burguillos said the game plan changes every week even if two defenses have similar schemes, so the plan of attack is never going to be the same.

"Game plan changes week to week, with any team," Burguillos said. "But it's just all about taking your coaching and being prepared for the game and going in with a game plan and following it."

Another area that the Cowboys hope to see improvement in is third-down conversions. McNeese converted 7 of 18 third downs (38.9 percent) in the SLU win. The only other time the Cowboys converted better than 26.7 percent of their third downs was in the season opener against Southern University (8 of 19, 42.1 percent).

And while McNeese ranks among the worst teams in the country at converting third downs (26.7 percent), UCA is near the bottom of the SLC in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 43.8 percent of the time.

When the Cowboys do go to the air, they'll have to be aware of UCA junior cornerback Robert Rochell, who leads the Bears with three interceptions and four pass break-ups. On the front end, UCA hasn't done much in the way of sacking the quarterback, registering five sacks in five games. Ten Football Championship Subdivision teams have fewer sacks than the Bears.

If McNeese can hold on to the ball on Saturday, its chances of winning drastically go up. The Cowboys, who left for Arkansas this morning, are 3-0 when not committing a turnover.

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