If Lance Guidry had the luxury of a DeLorean time machine like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, he would most assuredly go back to the beginning of August camp and start this whole thing over again.
Then, and only then, would he make that season-opening trip down to Nicholls State and have another go at the Colonels.
Reminds me of an old Dr. John song that started with the words, “I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time.”
The McNeese Cowboys were in Thibodeaux all right, to open the 2017 season on an unusual Thursday night, against what proved to be a pretty good Southland Conference rival. The Pokes did a number of things right, but far too many wrongs, which resulted in a surprising 37-35 loss.
Let me state for the record, at several August practices, I saw where these Cowboys worked on red zone situations and punched it in for six points. For some reason, all that was left on the practice field, because McNeese failed miserably given five beautiful opportunities to keep the scoreboard operators busy in the first half.
A wonderfully executed opening game drive by quarterback James Tabary produced a field goal. A third possession after a muffed punt return by the Colonels put McNeese on the 12-yard line. Later, the team was inside the 5 — and still only a field goal. In the second quarter, a third and short at the Nicholls 8-yard line was stuffed, and there was yet another field goal.
A razor thin 9-7 half-time lead should have been something like 28-7, and Guidry knew it. “We really should’ve had this game won at the half. We didn’t convert in the red zone, and we had too many penalties,” lamented the second-year Cowboys head coach. That was Guidry’s main post-game quote and that put a bow on an ugly outing.
McNeese was hoping they’d solved the nagging tendency of giving up big, explosive plays on defense and figured out the running game from the offensive side.
Neither thing had happened.
Guidry’s defensive backfield allowed a shifty Dami Jeanpiere to catch it, spin with it, elude tacklers with it and eventually take it 62 and 77 yards for two touchdowns. Once again, the cornerbacks and safeties appeared to be out of position and taking some lousy angles in pursuit of Jeanpiere, who has had some luck against these Pokes in the past.
The offense chipped in with a chunk play of themselves, as Tabary threw to where he thought his receiver would be, but instead, the spot was occupied by an opposing Colonel, whose interception return measured 69 yards and cut the Cowboys’ lead to 16-14.
The first half was 30 minutes of unappreciated field position by McNeese, and the second half rotated from good plays to bad plays to unexplained plays that had the Cowboys going up and down like a Yo-Yo.
As expected, Tabary was the offensive star and glue, throwing for 238 yards, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes with three touchdowns. But he had those two picks.
He and senior receiver Kent Shelby played pitch and catch early. New tight end LaWayne Ross was unveiled and proved what kind of weapon he can be. Tavarious Battiste hauled in two TD passes, and the jet sweep with Darius Crawley and Nick Edwards was productive.
But while all that was going on, McNeese’s once-feared rushing attack was spinning its wheels. Most of the run production came from receiver sweeps. Tailbacks Justin Pratt, Ben Jones and David Hamm found little running space and fewer gaps, which is perplexing after a spring and summer devoted to rediscovering their running mojo.
Now there was one big dash — all 74 yards of it — by Hamm, which put 6 points on the board. But soon, Shelby was flagged for the second time for holding. A senior like Shelby, in a tight-fisted game, has to know how to keep his hands inside: away from the shoulder pads and jersey.
That negated touchdown run topped the list of McNeese miscues, which included a blocked field goal, blocked PAT, two interceptions and a truck load of drive-killing penalties.
Oh, those pesky penalties varied greatly. They ranged from chop blocks, to holding, to illegal offensive formations, to illegal procedure and pass interference: 13 penalties in all for 117 yards. Many were costly in valuable yardage and negating a touchdown.
There was one sequence in the third quarter after the second of McNeese’s two blocked punts (big in the plus column) where the Pokes were poised inside the Nicholls 10-yard line. Then came a procedure penalty, a delay of game call and another chop block infraction, putting the team at third and goal at the 30-yard line.
It brought back dreaded memories of that series of plays in the play-off loss to Sam Houston two years ago.
Tabary ended up connecting with Battiste on a nice 30-yard touchdown pass. But the sloppiness and mistakes just kept mounting in spite of the positive outcome.
The offensive line’s best showing came on the game’s opening drive, when the Cowboys came out throwing. When they tried to run, it was a different story altogether.
The O-line was project No. 1 during August camp. It was rebuilt with four new starters, including LSU transfer center Andy Dodd. New offensive line coach Ben Norton was brought in from Northwestern State, and progress was evident in scrimmages.
But live under the lights, the line struggled in the second half with outside speed rushers, allowing four sacks and too much contact on Tabary.
It’s back to the drawing board and practice field for Norton, who will figure this out. He’s too smart and talented not too.
I’m sure it was difficult for Guidry and the staff to feel any warm and fuzzies with the positives coming out of this costly loss, but there were some.
Jr. Co transfer Kyree McLean swatted down two punts, which normally would be huge factors in a winning cause. Trent Manuel did hit three of four field goals. And the defensive front seven dominated for most of the game. The run defense surrendered only 91 total yards, with 19 coming from Colonels quarterback Chase Fourcade’s late game draw play up the middle for a big score.
The rest of the game’s stats favored McNeese, which is nice on paper, but in the end did little to win the game.
The blocked field goal and failure on a fourth-quarter two-point conversion could have cushioned the Cowboys’ lead and forced Nicholls to win with a last-drive touchdown instead of the game-clinching 32-yard field goal.
Hamm’s negated touchdown run, pick six and another interception that led to Fourcade’s scoring run, those two long touchdown passes that had the Pokes secondary looking like Keystone Cops and the long list of penalties.
Maybe. The Cowboys lost a lot of critical practice time in the heat and on the grass due to heavy rains and the ensuing drenched fields. U.L.-Lafayette’s invitation to use their indoor facilities early in game week was helpful. But normal schedules and processes were thrown to the wind.
That’s not seeking excuses; maybe it’s just poking holes in the obvious. It wasn’t a pretty picture. But a canvas is there to apply more work on and for touching up colors.
A loss so early in the conference means there’s little to no margin for error if the team is to contend for the SLC title. Remember, the Cowboys will not face defending SLC champ and leading contender Sam Houston this year, so they will have to cheer on the likes of Nicholls, Central Arkansas or Southeastern La. to defeat the BearKats.
For the Cowboys, a team so intent on burying the ills from last year, there is no good time for a loss. But this one out of the gate is definitely the wrong time and against the wrong team.
Many in the game believe a football club will show the most improvement from the first game to the second. McNeese is clinging to that belief.