By Rick Sarro
You didn’t think this Southland race was going to proceed through the fall without some drama did you?
The McNeese Cowboys were sitting pretty atop the league just a few weeks ago. But then came the San Antonio Stumble. That unexpected 45-17 loss to Incarnate Word was like a message: “Help! I’ve fallen and can’t get up.”
That 28-point slip up was a total shock, as the Cowboys held a firm grip on the No. 6 ranking in the country while UIW were outliers, but drawing some attention for racing out to a 3-1 SLC record.
The game ushered in still more questions about McNeese’s anemic offense, a running attack still stuck in neutral and inconsistent quarterback play. Then came whispers about the downfall of the usual stout defense that gave up four Cardinal touchdowns in their first six possessions.
Rest assured a one-game aberration was not going to define this defense. Not this season.
But the lack of production from this offense has been a concern since game one. (You can’t really factor in the Houston Baptist game, because it seems everyone scores at least 50 points against them.)
In search of answers and a remedy, head coach Lance Guidry made the bold move and replaced his three-year All SLC starting quarterback James Tabary with peach fuzz, sophomore Cody Orgeron. And not just for a pushover opponent. (This season, there doesn’t seem to be many easy and predictable games in the Southland).
Guidry put Orgeron under center in the midst of a tight conference race, against a Central Arkansas team tied with McNeese atop the SLC, knowing the Bears had two straight blowout wins over the Cowboys by a combined score of 82-17. The kid’s entire family was in attendance. And did I mention it was Homecoming week for the Pokes?
Now, that may amount to throwing this young quarterback to the wolves. “I have never seen a deer in the headlights look from that kid ever. That’s a guy who played one year of football. He’s a tennis player. Some people have that type of moxie,” said Guidry, as he explained why Orgeron was so calm and composed in the first collegiate start of his career.
His Orgeron DNA served him well, as did creative play calling and a revived rushing game.
Under the heading of “where did that play come from?” Orgeron threw a lateral pass to freshman quarterback Cam Smith (the highly touted recruit from Florida who saw his first action of the year), who then threw it back to Orgeron for a nifty 12-yard gain and a first down.
“Cam can play a little wide receiver if we need him to. We are going to have some different packages. There is always the double pass with him. We played Reggie Williams (freshman running back) on the reverse because he is just so fast. We can use those guys through four games. I love the new redshirt rule. It’s at all costs right now. We have to win out. That’s the situation we are in, and we have to use everything we’ve got to try and win the conference championship and try to get in the playoffs again,” said Guidry.
The razzle, dazzle play, not seen over the first six games, had the crowd juiced and the McNeese sideline jumping; and showed that Guidry wasn’t content to sit on his hands with the status quo. Now, don’t get me wrong — the status quo through half the season was pretty darn good: a 5-2 record, 4-1 in the conference, with one of the top defenses in the country.
It was clear Orgeron brought a new energy to the offense and a spark to the team. He got off to a confidence-boosting start with a couple of long completions and drove the Cowboys to an opening drive touchdown and a 7-0 lead. “He (Orgeron) created a spark and we had our best first half offensively since the Nicholls game. We felt like we needed a change because we had become stagnant on offense. It wasn’t James’ (Tabary) fault, because the offensive line wasn’t doing well. Running backs weren’t doing well. Wideouts either. All of sudden, when you have a quarterback that can run the ball, you have more plays that you can run,” Guidry said on his decision to change quarterbacks.
A 16-yard designed quarterback run put Orgeron in the end zone and gave the team a 14-7 first quarter advantage. Orgeron, a walk-on two years ago who only played one year of high school football in Baton Rouge, got points on four of McNeese’s first five possessions. He engineered an impressive 20-7 cushion at the midway point of the second quarter en route to an eventual 23-21 critical win over the then-13th ranked Bears.
That’s not bad for a kid known more for his two state high school singles tennis championships, and for being the son of LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, of course. As a coach’s son, he has learned how to manage big game pressures and keep emotions in check.
“I don’t feel one bit of that,” said a very calm Orgeron after the win. “I don’t think about that when I go out to play. I take it play by play, drive by drive, quarter by quarter. I just felt God’s presence the whole night, and knew something special was going to happen.” Mom and Dad were in attendance to watch Cody’s first career start by virtue of LSU’s open date leading up to the Alabama game. Coach O had to be happy as a Cajun Lark, if there is such a bird.
From my cat bird seat in the press box, it appeared that the Cowboys, to a man, played hard from the outset.
Was it the change at quarterback and the added dimension of Orgeron’s legs?
Was it the butt chewing they got from Guidry after the embarrassing defeat the week before?
Can you chalk it up to Homecoming hype?
It may have been all of the above. But there is no doubt that the running backs (David Hamm in particular) ran harder. The offensive linemen blocked tougher. The receivers made better cuts. The defense appeared to swarm the opposing quarterback faster and unleashed more punishing hits.
“When Cody was scrambling around and making plays, that’s hats off,” said All SLC linebacker B.J. Blount. It’s hard to find a quarterback who can do that mentally and physically. Playing big games like this is what we like to do. Playing games that you blow people out is fun, but it ain’t nothing like playing a dogfight and coming out with a win.” Despite scaling the national polls as high as No. 6 a few weeks ago — they have since slipped out of the Top 10 — this is not a McNeese team that’s going to dominate the conference.
And in Guidry’s mind, that’s OK.
He has said time and again, “a win is a win, no matter how close or ugly.” He points to the obvious parity in the league among the top four or five teams, saying anyone can beat anyone on any Saturday. That was never more evident than with the Cowboys’ blowout loss to IWU; lowly Lamar beating perennial big dog Sam Houston; and Abilene Christian taking down last year’s playoff darling Nicholls State. Those are some of the many twists and turns so far in the SLC.
“Nobody has beaten us this year. We have beaten ourselves,” Guidry proclaimed. “You go back to BYU; we turn the ball over multiple times in their area. Against Incarnate Word, we did the same thing, along with giving up big plays. We didn’t beat ourselves, but it wasn’t perfect.”
With this McNeese team, it’s never going to be spot on or the way the coaches may script it during the week.
The offense is still a work in progress, especially with Orgeron now at quarterback. They will have lulls — like the slow stretch midway through the game against Central Arkansas. The offense scored on four of its first five drives. But over the next seven possessions, the Cowboys could only muster up one first down.
The defense is the core of the team’s success. But they still have a tendency to give up big explosive plays — especially on deep passing routes.
Punt returns can either be a run back for a score or a muff resulting in a turnover.
If there’s one phase of the game that’s marked with consistency, it’s surely the kicking of senior punter Alex Kjellsten, who is setting school records with booming 50 and 60 yard punts. If he keeps this up, the St. Louis High School grad will surely garner interest from the NFL.
Field goal kickers in Louisiana are all the rage, rising to lofty status with the exploits of LSU’s Cole Tracy and Will Lutz of the New Orleans Saints. McNeese’s Gunnar Raborn is trying to keep up with those two and holding his own. He is 11 of 15 on field goals, and drilled three kicks against UCA, the last one being the game winner.
Guidry says his Cowboys must have a “warrior’s mentality” and “weather the storm” as the final three games loom. The head coach pounds the glass half-full view of this football team and says they will continue to do “whatever is necessary to win.”
And that necessity may be to continue with Orgeron at quarterback. At 6 feet, 180 pounds, he still looks more like a tennis star than a football player when he’s in his street clothes.
But looks can be deceiving; Orgeron proved that by making enough plays with his arm and legs. The stats from his first start weren’t eye-popping. He was only 13 of 21 for 135 yards, with one rushing touchdown. Some might say those numbers are much like his Dad’s when he was quarterback at LSU.
Clearly, Orgeron’s ability to extend plays, throw on the move and tuck it and run, either on designed plays or ad lib, gives the offense a different dimension and weapon at quarterback.
They are two diametrically different quarterbacks.
Tabary is the experienced, senior veteran pocket thrower with All SLC awards on his resume who’s still chasing McNeese passing records.
Orgeron is a young, mobile sophomore quarterback who’s more apt to make plays with his legs; who began at McNeese as a walk-on buried on the depth chart until he finally got a full scholarship last spring.
“Right now, Cody’s the guy,” said Guidry. “We won a big ballgame with him. But James has to be ready to play when it matters.” Guidry will have to manage and navigate the personalities and competitive drive of both his quarterbacks. A quarterback change such as this so late in the season with a conference championship at stake might trigger locker room problems because of split allegiances over who should lead the offense.
The sincere and likable Orgeron tried to quell any question of tension or ego clashing between him and Tabary. “I’m going to support James when he is in the game and he is going to support me vice versa. I’m going to help him out with coverages and he does the same for me. Just very supportive of each other. No weird tensions or beef. None of that. We are in this as a team. I will do anything for James to be successful.”
I know Tabary’s competitiveness, drive, work ethic and leadership prowess. He’s not happy about being bumped from the starting quarterback position. With his track record and body of work, you can’t expect him to be OK with it. But a change in quarterback style and skill set was needed, based on how the offense as a whole was producing.
Call it a spark or new energy. Or perhaps it was simply that right now, this offense requires a more mobile passer to open up the playbook and stretch opposing defenses differently.
With each passing week, the Southland teams continue to beat up on each other and jostle the leaderboard.
At the time of this writing, the Cowboys are alone in first place at 6-2 overall; 5-1 in league play.
A bundle of four teams sit tied in second place one game back at 4-2; these include Central Arkansas, Nicholls State, Sam Houston and Incarnate Word.
McNeese owns any tiebreaker with wins over Nicholls and Central Arkansas. UIW has a tough road remaining, with games against Central Arkansas and Sam Houston.
The Cowboys need to put that warrior’s mentality to work and run the table over the final three games. If they’re able to do that, then it will be sunny skies, a 15th Southland championship and an assured bid to the FCS Playoffs.
But don’t blink on this conference race, because another storm could be right around the corner.
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 and is also broadcast on KSWL CBS Lake Charles on Saturdays before network SEC football coverage.