Rick Sarro Wednesday, December 4, 2013 0

It wasn’t that long ago that McNeese head coach Matt Viator made a quick exit from his Monday press conference when a university marketing representative began to outline preliminary plans for advance ticket sales for a possible home playoff game.

Coaches have a hard and fast disdain for looking ahead or skipping over scheduled games to talk about the what ifs and maybe this or possibly that. Viator chuckled when the discussion turned to postseason playoff bids, and muttered under his breath that it was time for him to hit the road.

Chalk it up to superstitions, years of taking it one game at a time and not counting one’s chickens.

That brings us to the Cowboys’ 43-17 beat down of Northwestern State. It does appear very likely that McNeese, with a 9-2 record and a date with rival Lamar in Beaumont to end the season, will most assuredly get an at-large playoff bid, and with the chips falling just right, a possible first-round bye.

Coach V must succumb to the protocol of pre-planning, and, against his will, begin to think, and, yes, even talk about the playoffs. “Because of our situation the last two times we’ve been in the playoffs, we were 100 percent out of school,” said Viator. “There is a lot of planning whether we are in or not in (the playoffs); there is a lot of planning because [of] it being Thanksgiving week. To house the team, feed the team and do all that. I have to start regardless, and have already started that, to be honest with you.”

I know that went against every rule of thumb and coaching lesson he’s learned in his long career. But there comes a time when a head coach at the FCS level has to put on his GM and CEO hat and work out the off-the-field details.

Ranked 9th and 11th on various FCS polls before the Northwestern State win, the Cowboys are expected to jump several notches and wind up comfortably in the Top 10. A victory at Lamar will solidify that poll position and make it hard for the playoff committee to deny McNeese a first-round pass and put them in line for a home date as well.

Any shot at a Southland Conference crown was lost when McNeese stumbled to a 41-7 defeat to Southeastern Louisiana a few weeks ago. The Lions secured their first SLC title by virtue of their win over two-time defending conference champion Sam Houston and will garner the league’s automatic playoff berth.

Nothing is automatic for the Cowboys, but the playoff prize is all but gift-wrapped thanks to that dominating season-opening rout of FBS member South Florida and the back-to-back victories over Central Arkansas and Sam Houston when they were still FCS powers, ranked 14 and 2 respectively.

Postseason play has been a distant memory for the past three years as McNeese has floundered to an overall 19-14 record from 2010-2012. But these 2013 Cowboys have the look and feel of a team not only worthy of a bid but one that can do some damage in the new 24-team bracket.

The agenda for the Cowboys right now is short and simple: take care of Lamar, who will be primed for an upset behind the league’s second best overall defense. Second on the Cowboys’ must-do list is to solve their persistently shaky first quarter starts. It’s a glaring weakness that they have yet to find an answer for.

“It’s a concern, but if we can come back and do what we did against Northwestern, I’m fine with it,” said Viator. “I don’t know. We went in thinking we could improve on that. The last few weeks it’s been more my fault than theirs (the players). Instead of coming out and jabbing, jabbing to see what the defense would do, I didn’t go after it. I don’t know; we have to figure out something.”

The difference between the Cowboys from the first 15 minutes to the second 15 is glaring. Through the first 11 games, McNeese has been outscored 95 to 86. That’s not overly one-sided, but the devil is in the details as the Cowboys have imploded with early turnovers, penalties (namely, false starts), bad throws, dropped passes, missed coverages by the defense, and just a total lack of rhythm and playmaking.

But like clockwork, when the scoreboard reads “Second Quarter,” the Cowboys wake up from what looks like an Ambien hangover and begin to score points in bunches and put a chokehold on opposing offenses.

In the second quarter alone, McNeese has outscored opponents 181 to 61. It’s not as if the Cowboys aren’t trying and playing hard. In most cases, the effort and want were there, but the execution was not. “I have to figure out a better way to get us into a better rhythm early,” said a perplexed Viator. “I felt like we had a different plan [against Northwestern], but we’ll have to find a different plan [against Lamar].”

The players aren’t oblivious to their less-than-stellar starts and realize they’ve been a factor in their two losses. “It definitely is a concern,” said senior cornerback Guy Morgan. “We have to come out faster, because against a good team, we get behind [and] we may not be able to catch up.”

That “good team” will be here before long come playoff time, and the Cowboys will need their A game from down one. Junior tight end Nic Jacobs, whose size and playmaking will be critical in the tournament, said the Pokes just “need to get hit in the mouth” before the juices get flowing. “It’s not that we’re taking opponents lightly, but maybe we overestimate ourselves. As soon as we get hit in the mouth, we come out harder.”

It’s clear when McNeese got coldcocked in their two lopsided losses to Northern Iowa (41-6) and Southeastern (41-7), they regrouped the following week, and in both instances, they played their best games, while totaling the season’s highest offensive output. The Cowboys hung 59 on Central Arkansas and an eye-popping 69 points on SFA.

“We have that 24-hour rule,” said Cody Stroud, the confident senior quarterback who’s now third on the school’s all-time career passing list. “We may not have had it as well in the past as this year. Come Sunday, watch film and then forget it. It’s over and we can’t change it now. This team has done a great job at [that] and moved on. We can’t change the past, but we can definitely work on the future.”

That focus, and the character needed to bounce back, have meant the Cowboys haven’t lost back-to-back games. According to Morgan, that’s a sign of a great team.

Stroud, who’s ranked second in the league in passing efficiency, admits the Cowboys did little right in their two defeats. But he believes the Cowboys have proven they can “play with the best of them.”

I stated back in August McNeese will go as far as Stroud can take them as their senior leader and starting quarterback. He has guided the Cowboys to an impressive 9-2 record, which is their best since the SLC championship season of 2009. Stroud has 25 touchdown passes against only 4 interceptions while completing nearly 60 percent of his passes.

His performance can be credited to an offensive line that has overachieved, gelled quickly with three new starters, remained healthy and kept Stroud sound and in one piece. The quarterback has options in the game plan, with a running game that’s half ground and pound and the other half slash and dash.

Tailbacks Marcus Wiltz and Kelvin Bennett are coming off their second dual 100-yard-plus rushing games of the season as they carved through Northwestern for 135 and 110 yards respectively.

One of the keys to the Cowboys’ turnaround this season has been keeping players off crutches and on the field. One of the healthy notables in that regard has been Wiltz, the senior from New Iberia who leads the team in rushing with 1,172 yards.

Reciever/returner Diontae Spencer (also injury-free for the most part) makes the flashy highlights with 93-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns. But it’s Wiltz who just lowers his head and keeps his legs churning upfield. He has a blue collar, hard hat mentality that’s carried the heavy load and will land him on the All-Southland Conference team.

“Coach has confidence in me and has said, ‘Wiltz, we have to get this thing going.’” Twice in the last three weeks, though, it was two early first quarter fumbles by Wiltz that led to opponents’ points and contributed to McNeese’s sleep-walking starts. He doesn’t normally put the ball on the turf and realizes it’s a trend that has to end.

“First it starts off with me putting the ball on the ground. I can’t do that. I have to start off faster than that. We have the momentum going then, and I do something like that; it just kills the momentum for the team. But I have a short memory, and I put it out of my mind and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Obviously Viator has a short memory as well, as he continues to send his 5-foot, 9-inch, 190-pound dynamo back in for the pound portion of the running game. This offense will need Wiltz and that balance between the run and pass for the Cowboys to have any shot of ending their 0-4 playoff record dating back to 2003.

The defense, which is healthy and running fast for the most part, has rallied around the energetic and boisterous personality of defensive coordinator Lance Guidry. His aggressive and ball-hawking schemes have been a productive complement to Viator’s record-setting offense, which needs only 11 points to break McNeese’s school record of 478 total points set in 2002.

One stat that pretty much tells the story of these Cowboys and this remarkable season is they’re 9-0 when leading at the half and 0-2 when trailing at the break.

A simple formula for success?  Well, maybe. It’s been telling so far, but as I said earlier, nothing is automatic for this team, and especially not in the playoffs. The stakes rise, as does the talent level and everything that goes with a return to the national stage and a shot at vying for a national championship.

It’s OK if I look ahead.