Off and running, sort of

Cowboys need to continue making strides in ground game

<p>McNeese State Cowboys running back David Hamm (32) gets brought down after a large gain during their Southland Conference game at Cowboy Stadium in Lake Charles, La., Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. (Rick Hickman/Lake Charles American Press)</p>Rick Hickman

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While the McNeese State offense remains a work in progress, head coach Lance Guidry said he saw plenty of encouraging signs in the Cowboys’ 23-21 win over Central Arkansas.

One of those signs was the running game. McNeese ran for 135 yards and a season-high two touchdowns. The rushing yardage was the fourth-highest output of the season and the first time the team has rushed for more than 100 yards since the Stephen F. Austin game on Sept. 29.

Senior running back David Hamm led McNeese in rushing with 59 yards — his second-best rushing total of the season — and one touchdown on 13 carries.

"Definitely our offensive line," Hamm said when asked what improved in the running game. "Give a lot of credit to them. We were leaning on them as an offense. It starts with them."

The running game wasn’t perfect, as McNeese averaged 2.9 yards per carry. But one play was a kneel-down at the end of the game by quarterback Cody Orgeron that lost 4 yards. And UCA made four sacks for 17 yards that also hurt the average.

In order to jump-start the run game, the Cowboys added a few wrinkles. One was to utilize Orgeron’s legs, which paid off early when he ran a quarterback draw for a 16-yard touchdown. They also used freshman speedster Reggie Williams on plays to the perimeter. Williams finished with two carries for 17 yards.

Freshman center Cutter Leftwich, who has started all eight games, said he likes the variety in play-calling and believes it helps the offense.

"It’s good to keep the defense on their toes," Leftwich said. "Make sure they’re not keying on one thing. We’ve got a lot of things coming in. We trust the coaches. They always put together a good game plan every week. We trust them and they trust us to execute it."

The running game will get another chance to put up big numbers against a Southeastern Louisiana (3-6, 3-4 Southland Conference) team that has struggled defensively. Against the run, the Lions give up an average of 182.3 yards per game, which ranks sixth in the Southland. The Cowboys (6-2, 5-1) have not rushed for 182 yards this season.

But Hamm said he sees things in the Lions’ defense that McNeese hopes to take advantage of.

"Their blitz schemes," Hamm said. "We can run away from the blitz and definitely take advantage of their open zones because they play a lot of zone coverages and we can throw right into the middle of the bubble and take advantage of the defense."

For the season, McNeese has run for 896 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. While the Cowboys have survived to this point, the running game will have to step up if they have plans on making the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Something else that should help the running game is Orgeron becoming more comfortable at quarterback. If that happens, teams might be less likely to load the box to stop the run and force McNeese to beat them through the air.

There is also the read-option element that Orgeron can bring.

"We had a lot of run stuff that was reads for him," Guidry said of the game plan for Orgeron. "And then we sprinted him out once or twice and we had some nakeds (bootlegs) for him as well. We’ll continue to do that throughout the stretch and just game plan what people give you. I think we did a good job of creating some plays that matched him and what he did well. So we’ll continue to try and do those things. But we can’t become predictable as well."

Saturday 2:30 p.m. CST

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