Show And Tell

Rick Sarro Thursday, October 16, 2014 Comments Off on Show And Tell
Show And Tell

What the McNeese Cowboys have shown so far — three games and two open dates into the season — may be very telling, as the team approaches the meat of its Southland Conference match-ups.

Most of what we know or think we know about this team came in the season opener against Nebraska in Lincoln. Four weeks in, and, yes, I’m still referring to that historic near-upset of the Cornhuskers, and for good reason.

With convincing wins over overmatched Prairie View A&M and Division II Arkansas Tech, I’m not sure what concrete trends the Cowboys have clearly established.

They were spectacular in all phases of the game in that 31-24 last-second loss to Nebraska, which is impressive, as it came against the top of the food chain of college football.

McNeese’s anticipated feasting at the other end of the buffet resulted in 32- and 51-point blowouts in games two and three.

It was great play. It was focused, motivated and avoided the always possible danger of overlooking an overmatched opponent.

Besides doing what they were supposed to do, how much are we to take from these games, and how will that knowledge translate against the likes of Sam Houston State, Abilene Christian, Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana?

No offense to the Panthers (A&M) and the Wonder Boys (Ark. Tech), but they were no more than glorified practices: good cardio workouts, but not much else.

Here is what these semi-trained eyes have seen thus far.

The Cowboys’ defense displayed its considerable discipline, speed and toughness in a second-half near-stranglehold against Nebraska and built from that in the next two games. So much so that head coach Matt Viator agrees with the belief that the defense is carrying his club early on and doesn’t mind if they do, thank you.

The veteran offensive-minded coach admits that when McNeese was making deep runs in the playoffs, and moving toward national championship games, it was top-rated defenses that carried the heavy load.  He prefers it that way. It probably makes his game planning and play calling a bit more diverse.

Lance Guidry’s defense will stay in the SLC’s Top 3 in total defense and scoring defense, and will surely inch up into the top tier in overall rushing and passing defense after the upcoming Nicholls State home game. (I’m allowed to look ahead and over upcoming opponents because I’m not concerned with locker room chalk board clippings.)

What sets this Cowboys defense apart nationally is the fact that they’ve now scored defensive touchdowns in three straight games. That’s probably not an NCAA record, but it’s a school record. “I’ve never been a part of it. It’s exciting,” said Viator. “Three straight games that we scored on defense … I’ve never seen that. It’s got to be some kind of record, because it’s very hard to do.”

They could very well add more points in the coming weeks. (Arkansas and North Texas beat Nicholls by 67 and 74 points respectively, so I’m not sure if their defenses were shutout by the Colonels.)

Senior safety Aaron Sam got it going with that 98-yard pick six against Nebraska. Two forced fumbles and touchdown returns followed. McNeese’s defense has nearly outscored Incarnate Word’s offense through five games. I’m not kidding.

Defensive scores off turnovers turn around games. Viator adds that they no doubt shift momentum.

Defensive coordinator Guidry has made it his mission to force turnovers.  The defense works on it every practice, and he believes what you do in practice is a precursor to game execution.

The defense has significantly reduced the number of big plays given up, with the one notable exception of Ameer Abdullah’s back-breaking, game-winning 58-yard catch and run in Lincoln.

The defensive front has been stout inside and on the edges. Defensive ends Everett Ellefsen and newcomer Brian Hine have pressured quarterbacks and chased down running backs. Linebackers Bo Brown and Deonte Thompson (one of those fumble touchdown runs) have been headhunters. The secondary, led by safeties Brent Spikes, Dominique Hill (freshman) and the veteran Sam, has gelled and has avoided any major breakdowns in coverage.

The stats don’t show it yet, but this defense, if it stays healthy, will bother some good offenses down the line. They will need their A games for Sam Houston’s pass-happy ways. Northwestern State and Southeastern will be major tests.

I’m pretty sure right about now Viator is tired of my constant questions about the quarterback rotation and his plans on using both Tyler Bolfing and Daniel Sams.

Bolfing started at Nebraska. Sams started both the A&M and Arkansas Tech games. But you can’t read too much into that. Viator intended to use the open date to figure out which QB might be “the guy” and who might be “the other guy.”

“It’s probably been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done (trying to decide this quarterback rotation or competition. I don’t know. They all bring something different to the table, and we are just trying to do what’s best for the football team. The competition has made all the quarterbacks better.”

I’m not sure if he has his quarterback answer or ever will. And again, I’m OK with that. Play them both. Play them equally, and definitely play the hot hand when the games tighten up. And believe me, upcoming games will become more of the nail-biting type soon enough.

Bolfing has been the more accurate passer, especially on deep throws. The 6-foot, 2-inch, 220-pound junior has shown control of the offense and composure in the line of fire (primarily against Nebraska). He moves well enough to shift the pocket, and goes through his progressions. His completion percentage in the mid-60 percent-range doubles that of Sams.

“Obviously I want to be on the field playing,” Bolfing said after his four of five, 85-yard passing night. “But I trust the coaching staff that they are going to do what’s best for this football team to win games. As aggravated as I may be (over not playing more), I will be supporting them (Daniel Sams or Will Briscoe).”

Sams, the Kansas State transfer, built his resume on the FBS level with his immense running skills. He led all Big 12 Conference quarterbacks with nearly 900 yards of rushing last year. He is McNeese’s second-leading rusher and is always a threat to break a big gain.

His two interceptions in three games are not as bothersome as his accuracy. Viator says a thumb injury and subsequent surgery at Kansas State have slowed his passing progress, but it’s coming around. Like any talented quarterback who thinks he’s good enough to be the man, Sams is working on keeping his head in the game whether he plays or not.

“I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t get frustrated or aggravated, but at the same time we are a team. We preach that Monday through Saturday. We are a team. If Tyler is in, then all right, it’s time to support. Then when my number is called again, it’s time to play.

The New Orleans native admits that he used to allow “things” (playing time and a two-quarterback system at Kansas State) to get to him, but he’s learned from that experience and now channels his energy and thoughts into his execution.

“Where I’m at now, I just focus on making plays. Who cares who comes in the next play? Just focus on the task at hand. Coach Snyder (K-State’s legendary head coach) used to say, ‘One and O.’ One and O every play and every snap. Try and win that snap. Whatever comes after that just comes.”

My guess is neither Bolfing or Sams will elevate into the full-fledged No. 1 starting quarterback. They possess diverse skill sets that the Cowboys will need to call on to win critical conference games.

The running game was supposed to be good, and so far it has been. Before the Arkansas Tech blowout, the Cowboys were leading the SLC with a 278-yard rushing average per game. Kelvin Bennett and Derrick Milton have been the one-two punch, with Dylan Long adding his power in the red zone.

Sams has been that added rushing weapon, and will continue to fulfill that role.

With the injury to Nate Holmes (who could be out indefinitely with a kidney injury in the A&M game) the redshirt has been lifted from freshman Ryan Ross, who had rave reviews in August camp, and made his collegiate debut, scoring three rushing touchdowns.

The offensive line dominated Nebraska at times. Yes, I did write that sentence. As expected, the line has gotten better with each game. Over the last three to four weeks, Viator has been free to pull from his bench to build some depth for later in the season.

The receivers are many, and the passes have been spread around. Ernest Celestie is making the most of his sixth and final year. David Bush and Khalil Thomas are finding open seams. But the passing game may have taken a hit with the knee injury suffered by Kent Shelby in the Arkansas Tech win.

As of press time, the extent of the injury was unknown, but in a close-up photo of the play, it appeared that Shelby’s left knee was badly twisted. “It (an easy win) is kind of expensive when you lose a guy like Kent Shelby,” said a distraught Viator after the game.  “It’s very, very hard. I thought he was coming on and coming into his own. But that’s the nature of the game, and we will have to move on from there. I learned my lesson in 2011 (Viator protected too many redshirt freshman and lacked depth late in the year) and it won’t happen again. Whoever we have to take shirts off, we’ll take them off and play. That’s the nature of it and the nature of FCS with the numbers you have. We have some freshman we think are pretty good too.”

Shelby got under a 44-yard bomb from Sams in the Nebraska game, and was on the receiving end of another 40-plus-yard strike from Bolfing when he suffered the knee injury on the big gainer. It was apparent Shelby was becoming McNeese’s deep threat, and his 6-foot, 3-inch, 190-pound frame will be missed.

McNeese will stay ranked in the Top 5 in both national FCS polls. A 2-1 record and a 61-7 romp over little Arkansas Tech won’t sway the pollsters either way.

The Cowboys are finding their way — discovering exactly what kind of team they have and their strengths and weaknesses.

As for the man in charge, his vision of where this ball club stands after three games is coming into better focus. But there are still unknowns.

“I’ve learned  that we still have a ways to go to be where I want to be offensively. The thing that has impressed me about this group is they have that competitive spirit because they like to play. Regardless of who the opponent, is I think we have played with speed and energy. That’s great, moving forward. Other than that, I don’t know, really. Once we get into conference play we will find out more about our club.”

That vision quest may not proceed much, as a struggling and winless Nicholls State is next in line.

Get Rick Sarro’s perspectives on sports on Soundoff 60, which airs Monday through Sunday nights at 9 pm on Suddenlink Channel 60 and Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10 am as well.

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