This open date and time off could not have come at a better time for the McNeese Cowboys.
This was, and probably still is, a beat-up and bruised football team that was in dire need of a week away from the turf to rest, heal and get their minds and bodies right for what will prove to be the toughest half of the schedule.
This team could easily be unbeaten at 6-0, and probably sitting pretty inside the Top 10 of both of the major FCS polls. Thank the upstart Nicholls State Colonels for keeping these Cowboys grounded with that one lone defeat, and ranked anywhere between 20 and 22 in the nation.
That’s not awfully bad from where I sit. It could be worse, based on what we all saw early in the season, as the defensive secondary was way too generous at times, giving up big yardage plays like they were trick-or-treat candy.
That 37-35 loss at Nicholls State was hard to imagine going into that odd ball Thursday night game before the calendar had even turned to September. The Colonels made believers out of the Cowboys, and more than a few pollsters, who now have the swordsmen in the Top 25 for the first time in years.
McNeese’s 42-21 victory over Division II Florida Tech in the midst of Hurricane Irma’s slamming of the Panthers’ home state was deceiving. It was much closer than the 21-point difference. And once again, the Cowboys were tested and uncomfortable at times before stretching the scoreboard late and securing their first win of the young season.
The 7-point road win at Alcorn State was critical and was needed to build confidence and momentum heading into Southland Conference play the following week. Junior quarterback James Tabary rallied the Pokes with late-game passing heroics, and the running game showed signs of life.
Most important, though, the defense began to flex its collective muscle and grit against the rush. And the secondary was slowly but surely beginning to play by head coach Lance Guidry’s standards and motto of “defense with attitude,” known in these parts as DWA.
Remember the Blue Wall from those bygone days? Well it’s backkkkk …
This nasty defense came to full force as conference competition began against Houston Baptist in week four. How nasty was it? Well, how about allowing a ridiculous 2.6 yards per offensive play? The McNeese defense surrendered a mere 132 total offensive yards to the Huskies from H-Town, who in turn converted only 2 of 13 on third down.
The only reason this game was as close as it was going into the fourth quarter was that the offense inherited that trick-or-treat syndrome from the defense and turned the ball over four times, with two fumbles and two interceptions.
Guidry was now 3-1. That was a tad better than his 2-2 start the previous year as a first-year head coach. He had readily admitted up to that point that the team was still working to find its true identity and what they could hang their hat on.
After the next two SLC match-ups — a 35-0 shutout at Stephen F. Austin and a hard fought 13-7 win at Abilene Christian — it became crystal clear that the hat rack had defense written all over it.
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Tabary, the 2016 SLC’s Newcomer of the Year winner and holder of several single-season McNeese passing records after only one season, the man … the star … the leader of this team? Well, yes, he is that and more.
Tabary may be coming off his worst game of the year in that 6-point win over Abilene. But when that dislocated pinkie on his throwing hand heals up and he gets back on track, Tabary will be one of the top three quarterbacks in the Southland, along with Sam Houston’s Jeremiah Briscoe and Central Arkansas quarterback Hayden Hildebrand.
Tabary will have to turn into the second coming of Tom Brady, Aaron Rogers and Drew Brees to upstage this McNeese defense if things continue as they have. Now, don’t think for a minute that young James is not planning to do just that.
The New Orleans native didn’t spend those precious days off eating beignets and crawfish pies back home in the Crescent City. No, he said his off week was time for him to get his mind reset, train on his own and work on his fundamentals. Through six games, Tabary is 117 out of 188 attempts for a 62 completion percentage to go with 1,348 yards, 15 touchdown passes and five interceptions. That puts the Cowboys in a respectable fourth place in passing in the conference and total efficiency.
Take it from me, and probably the entire team and coaching staff, there is no harder worker on this ball club than Tabary.
No doubt the passing game has taken a few steps back, while the ground-and-pound boys in the rushing attack have stepped it up a notch or two. The offensive line, which was young and thin in depth at the start of the season, has begun to impose its will on defensive fronts, allowing tailbacks Justin Pratt and David Hamm to both notch 100-plus yards on the ground.
The offensive line has stayed healthy, which is paramount to their continued success. And by opening up running lanes, Tabary can check out of plays and maybe find options downfield.
In this complicated football world we now reside in, with spread offenses and complex zone blitzes, it still holds true that the simplicity of an effective running game leads to a successful passing offense.
But in the simplest of terms, when one dissects the Cowboys at this point in the season, defense is what’s paying the bills.
You can’t pin everything on numbers and stats, but that’s a great place to start.
Before the games played on Oct. 14, McNeese’s defense ranked No. 1 in seven defensive categories and among the Top 3 in eight other areas.
The Cowboys were the best in the SLC in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. That’s the trifecta in defensive stats, if you were wondering.
Among the nation’s best in the FCS, the McNeese defense owns some impressive positions. It’s ranked seventh overall in total defense among FCS teams and third in total rushing defense. It’s the 18th-ranked defense in scoring and eighth nationally in red zone defense. Defenses live and die on third downs, and the Cowboys are tops in third down defense in the SLC, and ranked 11th nationally.
The stats look good on paper and in a PowerPoint presentation in a team meeting. But what stands out is the ferocity and intensity at which this defense attacks. They don’t just fill gaps and check the boxes on good technique and fundamentals.
Well, they do those things in such a way that you begin to feel sorry for the opposing offense.
These Cowboys swarm the ball as if they had “SWAT TEAM” written on the back of their jerseys. They chase down anyone with leather in hand in ways that would impress the best rodeo steer wrestlers. And they do it all with heart, determination and commitment to a common goal.
Plus, they love it when Guidry, who is also their defensive coordinator, gives them that huge smile and pat on the rear for a job well done.
McNeese has performed well enough to be tied for third place in the early conference race. It’s difficult to handicap and rate where they stand in the SLC right now because they’ve played and beaten middle-tier teams in the league. Their lone conference loss was to Nicholls, which is tied for second with Southeastern Louisiana at 4-1 in SLC play.
Central Arkansas sits atop the league at 5-1 overall and 4-0 in the SLC. McNeese and defending SLC champion Sam Houston are tied in third place at 3-1 and 5-1 overall.
Before mid-October, I thought I had the league’s power somewhat pegged. But that was before Central Arkansas needed a touchdown pass with less than 2 minutes to play to beat SFA on that awful purple field in Conway, Ark. I wasn’t too impressed with SFA because of its quarterback play against McNeese. But in fairness, he was the back-up.
Then Sam Houston, who still might be the best in the league despite losing to UCA a few weeks ago, trailed Northwestern State the entire game before a 1-yard touchdown run with a minute to play gave the BearKats their first lead and the win over the lightly regarded Demons.
Southeastern might be the biggest surprise to date, with four SLC wins. But they came against those same middle-tier teams in Lamar, Northwestern, Incarnate Word and Houston Baptist.
I can’t figure this league out with total confidence or completely gauge the Cowboys at this point until McNeese squares off against the upper tier Oct. 28 at Central Arkansas and at the home date against Southeastern on Nov. 4. The SLC race and the team that rises to the champion’s level won’t be decided until then.
For now, there is no margin for error for the Cowboys, as they must treat every Saturday as if it was for the conference championship — which it is. The Homecoming match-up against Incarnate Word is the next opportunity for McNeese to build on a solid start and prepare for a much tougher second half of the season.
Tabary’s passing pinkie needs to allow him a firm grip. The two-headed running tandem of Pratt and Hamm must continue to churn out 150-yard games. The defense needs to continue to reign and wreak havoc on opposing offenses. And let’s not forget about special teams, which have contributed with blocked punts, consistent punting, field goals and good coverages.
This is exactly why winning football games is the toughest task in all of team sports. There are so many moving parts in the ultimate team game, and right now, the Cowboys have most of them moving in the right direction.