New experience Cowboys kick off spring season with fresh faces
Jim Gazzolo, Special to the American Press
The last time Jamal Pettigrew stood in a stadium confetti rained down on his head as fans celebrated wildly from the stands.
He and his LSU teammates had just made history and won the national championship. That seems like a lifetime ago even if it was a little more than 13 months.
Tonight, Pettigrew will again make history, though snow flurries may replace those streamers and few fans will be allowed to witness.
Pettigrew and his new McNeese State teammates open the college football spring season when the Cowboys travel to Stephenville, Texas, to take on Tarleton State.
Pettigrew is one of several new faces who join the Cowboys, including head coach Frank Wilson, who will make his debut.
Wilson has had to wait 13 months for this night.
As for the Texans, they are playing for the first time on the Football Championship Subdivision level having recently moved up to Division II.
“This is exciting to finally get to this point,” Wilson said. “We are looking forward to playing football.”
Still, after two hurricanes, a pandemic and all the rest this group of Cowboys have been through since last playing 448 days ago, it’s just great to be back on the field.
“It’s been a long time,” Wilson said. “We have all been through a lot, but we are not going to play the victims. This is our chance to go out and do what we love to do.”
With a host of new faces, including the graduate transfer tight end for LSU, it is hard to know what this McNeese team will do. Twenty-one players have left the program since Wilson took over.
Some transferred while others called it quits to move on in life. Twenty players have been signed to fill the void, but not all can play this spring.
“We have enough bullets to do what we want,” said Wilson, who looks to open up the offense and play an attack-style defense.
But the Texans are not an easy first foe. Tarleton was 11-1, beating Southland Conference power Sam Houston State back in 2019.
For the Cowboys, it’s a small miracle they are even playing. Many thought the program would be put on hold after a pair of hurricanes ripped through Lake Charles last year.
“We love playing football,” said quarterback Cody Orgeron. “We are ready to play against somebody else. We are looking to play for our community, to give something back.”
Orgeron, a graduate student also, is 17 pounds heavier than when he last played, having build his body for the new season. He is also the unquestioned leader of an offense that is looking to be more dynamic than in the past.
“We are going to take our chances and stretch the field,” Wilson said. “Tarleton is a very good program and we are going to have to score some points, that’s just the nature of college football.”
For Orgeron it is his third offense in three seasons, but one he likes.
“I think we are going to be able to move the ball much more and have more options,” Orgeron said. “It’s going to be fun to see how it comes together.”
Orgeron had a solid 2019 season, when he led the Cowboys to a 7-5 record under Sterlin Gilbert. He threw for 2,628 yards and 24 touchdowns that season while rushing for another 482 and three more scores.
Orgeron has found a new receiver in Louisiana Tech transfer Josh Matthews, as the two have combine for big plays in preseason scrimmages. Add junior college transfer tailback Deonta McMahon and Pettigrew and you have some weapons to work with.
“We are going to use the tight end,” Wilson said. “When you have that big of a target that talented you have to find a way to use him.”
Defense will lead the way for the Cowboys, who are expected to mix up fronts and coverages in order to make big plays themselves. They also will try to limit a wide-open Texans offense that has plenty of pieces to replace itself.
“They like to spread the field and throw the ball,” Wilson said. “We have to eliminate big plays and get some turnovers.”
Houston graduate transfer Isaiah Chambers will help fill key losses on the line.
The Cowboys will have to stop Kahlil Banks, who ran for 644 yards and nine scores as a junior in 2019.
Redshirt junior Steven Duncan will try to fill the spikes of star quarterback Ben Holmes, who was one of six All-Americans on Tarleton’s 2019 team. Three of those stars on the D-II level return, giving McNeese a good foe to grade themselves against.
And somebody to share the state with on a historic night.