The thin air of northern Colorado was the least of McNeese’s worries in the team’s less than auspicious debut game of the 2018 football season.
In fact, other than a few cramps here and there, the lung-sapping lack of oxygen 4,700 feet above sea level didn’t seem to have any major effect on the Cowboys.
Their problems were more football-related, as you might expect with a season-opening game on the road involving an air flight, a bus ride and an opponent they’d never faced before.
Northern Colorado, near the bottom at 3-7 last year in a pretty good Big Sky conference, was expected to be better. But I pegged them a 10-14 point underdog to the 17th ranked Cowboys. McNeese probably should have beaten the Bears by 14 points or more. And they might have if it were not for continuing toe-snubbing issues in the red zone and an offense that went stone cold in the second half.
More on that in a bit.
You can put this razor thin 17-14 win squarely on the shoulders of McNeese’s defense, which picked up where that record-setting unit left off in 2017. Now, this effort by the DWA squad was far from perfect, as there was a busted coverage in the secondary that gave up an easy touchdown pass. But all in all, the defense controlled the Bears, and, as head coach and defensive coordinator Lance Guidry said, “rose to the occasion.”
About the only time UNC’s offense, led by touted but often injured quarterback Jacob Knipp, had the Cowboys defense on its heels was the very first possession and drive of the game. Knipp guided the Bears to the Cowboys’ 23-yard line. But McNeese drew the line in the turf there with a sack and a tackle for a loss. UNC ended up botching the first of three missed field goals.
On close inspection, it appears the UNC offense had a size advantage in most of the personnel matchups. But if the Bears were counting on McNeese to become slow pokes nagged by the high altitude, they were sadly mistaken.
The defense, led by various speed demons like Chris Livings, Cody Roscoe, B.J. Blunt, Gabe Foster, Christian Jacobs … OK, the entire defensive unit; chased down, swarmed and gang tackled from start to finish.
The only time UNC outran the defense was when receiver Alex Wesley junked his way clear on a deep post (the Cowboy cornerback actually fell down) and Knipp hit him in stride for a long touchdown pass that could have turned the game and the momentum. Luckily for the Cowboys, a personal foul penalty on an offensive lineman negated the score.
If there was any doubt about the talent and tenacity of preseason All SLC linebacker B.J. Blunt, he quickly put it to rest in Greeley.
Blunt, a senior who converted from safety last season due to injuries to the linebacker crop, was an unstoppable force and disruptive machine. He had two sacks (the second on Knipp came late in the game with McNeese protecting a slim 3-point lead). Add two pass breakups and eight tackles. With a name like Blunt, get ready for a creative list of synonyms to describe his play.
“We put a lot of pride into our defense,” declared Blunt after the game.
That prideful performance also saw sophomore defensive end Cody Roscoe collect two and a half sacks and sophomore safety Gabe Foster snag a huge pick-six interception to give the Cowboys a 17-0 lead in the second quarter.
But this defensive effort belongs to the entire unit, who held UNC to a miniscule 40 yards rushing, which ended up being a laughable 1.5 yards per carry. If that didn’t have Guidry smiling ear to ear, then allowing only 3 of 15 conversions on critical third downs did.
The secondary surrendered 261 yards passing to Knipp, who’s being hyped as an NFL prospect, which I don’t see. He ended up completing 19 of 35 passes with one score and two picks. If he ends up being one of the top QBs in the FCS, then it will surely be a mighty thin group.
McNeese’s lack of red zone production is reminiscent of last season’s opener at Nicholls State. Guidry acknowledged that, saying his offense “sputtered in the red zone, didn’t finish off drives and looked much like the Nicholls game” from 2017.
I was concerned about the receivers going into the game for various reasons, and it’s obvious there is work to be done. Drops and adequate separation were evident. But the nearly nonexistent running game didn’t help the cause through the air.
On the ground, the Pokes could only manage 106 total yards off 40 carries for a paltry 2.6 per carry average. If not for Justin Pratt’s 40-yard rip in the first quarter, the rushing total would have been well below 100 yards.
Clearly, the offensive line will not grade out anywhere near A+ on run blocking. Missed blocks, botched calls and gap penetration by the defensive linemen resulted in way too many tackles for losses or no gains.
The offense struggled on short yardage runs and may have to scrap screen plays until they can work out those kinks. Last year’s breakout star Lawayne Ross was a nonfactor as he lined up in the H-Back position. He was targeted a few times, but the defense was well aware of his skills. Offensive coordinators Landon Hoefer and Kerry Joseph will be breaking down tape this week to maximize Ross and get him into the defense’s second level, where he was so successful last year.
Quarterback James Tabary and Parker Orgeron stood out with solid games which could be the beginning of an effective passing tandem.
Orgeron, who had limited contact in August camp due to past concussions, had a great leaping catch and a 27-yard gain that helped set up the Cowboys’ first score early on. He had another diving grab later to add to his four-catch total for a game-high 77 yards.
After a few off-the-mark throws early, Tabary got dialed with a 9 for 11 and 109 yards passing total in the first half, en route to what seemed like a comfortable 17-0 halftime lead.
The offensive rhythm from the first half came to a complete halt in the second 30 minutes.
Tabary had them first and goal at the UNC 8-yard line early in the third quarter, but came away with no points after a Gunnar Raborn field goal attempt was blocked.
Red zone opportunities, especially inside the 10-yard line, are so precious and hard to come by that this offense can’t afford to let them slip away. That’s what dogged Tabary and his mates last season, and it was something he was determined to improve on this season.
After Tabary’s worst mistake, a pick six that got UNC to within 3 points at 17-14 with 5:36 to play, the Bears got new life and a pep in their step. Like any hungry bear, they smelled comeback and upset. And McNeese allowed it, by letting this bunch hang around and stay in the game in the second half.
The defense quieted the small home crowd and ended any chance of a complete rally with two huge sacks by Blunt and Roscoe late, and a game sealing interception by up and comer safety Jovon Burriss.
“It was a game of two halves,” Guidry said, hitting on the obvious. “A win’s a win. Anytime you can get a win traveling like we did, it’s always good. There are some things we can take from it, and [we] have a lot of corrections to make as well.”
I expected some offensive kinks and glitches — but not to this extent; not with a senior quarterback, a talented offensive line and five high-quality running backs. This offense is coming off last season, when they averaged nearly 30 points per game. Against Northern Colorado, the offense put 10 points on the board. That’s well below their average production, and certainly not enough to compete with BYU and some challenging SLC games lying ahead.
They have what should be an easier road game at Houston Baptist to put the shine back on this offense. But that’s all the wiggle room they have.
Nicholls State banged the FCS/FBS upset drum the loudest with a season-opening 26-20 overtime win over Big 12 member Kansas on the road. It had to be the most monumental Nicholls victory in school history.
The Colonels, streaking up this week’s FCS rankings, have circled the Sept. 15 game at McNeese to prove last year’s win over the Cowboys was no fluke. The Pokes may not have made as many headlines, but they surely know now that Nicholls State appears to be better than last season’s playoff squad.
Guidry got it dead on right after the UNC game, when he said, “we can’t win conference like that.”
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.