Rick Sarro Thursday, December 3, 2015 Comments Off on A CHAMPIONSHIP STORY

There are a lot of sayings and phrases to the effect that nothing in life comes easy and much work must be done if one is to reach the pinnacle of success.

There’s nothing easy about winning football games. So imagine the level of difficulty, time and effort it requires to go through a regular season undefeated.

The McNeese Cowboys are one victory away from joining that exclusive club of teams that have gone unbeaten for the season. They can capture the program’s third undefeated regular season since 1995 with a win at Lamar in Beaumont.

No team, or coach for that matter, will admit to a goal of going undefeated. It’s extremely hard to do, and once you lose, you don’t want to be burdened with the weight of that one failure.

Coaches and players alike do proclaim they go into every game with the full intention of winning, even though they may be a 30-point underdog. As former veteran NFL head coach Herb Edwards once famously bellowed, “you play to win the game.”

The Cowboys, who have already earned their 14th Southland Conference Championship — the most in the history of the league — have done a lot of winning this year, but it’s been far from easy.

Falling behind at Stephen F. Austin and Central Arkansas and having to rally to victory built confidence. Winning ugly and overcoming a slew of turnovers at Abilene Christian showed tenacity and the ability to overcome adversity.

All of that goes into any long football season. You’ve heard that it doesn’t matter how you got there — you just need to be on the winning side when it ends.

Head coach Matt Viator lives and breathes that notion every day, as his competency and job performance are analyzed and judged every week — fairly or unfairly. It’s the business.

What Viator has seen from his players is something to behold. “I’m just proud of these kids. They play hard and compete hard. It’s a great group of kids.”

Viator has had excellent squads before. As recently as 2013, the Cowboys went 10-2 en route to a second place finish in the SLC. In 2007, Viator’s Pokes went undefeated and captured back-to-back SLC titles.

It’s not easy to separate, discern and compare really good teams. Who is to say one was better overall than another?

But this season’s club may have that little something extra in the tank. Some special tangibles and unique intangibles just may put them in a class off to the side.

There is an exceptional quarterback in Daniel Sams, who at times could not hit the side of the Green Monster if he were in left field at Fenway Park. But he keeps playing hard. Playing tough. Never loses his confidence or his head. And then, out of the darkness, he bursts through the defense and into daylight, as he did on a game-changing 64-yard touchdown run in the win over defending co-conference champion Sam Houston State.

Sams knows he’s not the most accurate passer this side of the Southland. But he will find a way to complete some critical throws and hurt a defense with his arm when he’s required to.

Viator has claimed all season that his quarterback is one of the toughest and most competitive players he has ever coached. And that’s saying a lot.

The other X factor in McNeese’s success story has been a defense that just may go down as one of the Top 5 in the program’s history. In my 20-plus years of covering the Cowboys, I’ve seen some awfully good defenses and special star defenders.

This unit may not have a standout All American — like a Leonard Smith, Kavika Pittman, Bryan Smith or Zack Bronson (all with careers in the NFL). This 2015 defense has a consistent level of talent, execution and desire from top to bottom that’s unlike many I’ve seen.

Someone always seems to step up and make a critical play when it’s most needed — with the game in the balance. Remember Bo Brown’s mid-air hit on SFA quarterback Zach Conque’s touchdown dive from the one yard to force a fumble, only to have Wallace Scott scoop it up and race 97 yards for the score? It was a game-altering play.

Trailing Central Arkansas on the road, Scott again put his mitts on a fumble and returned it 45 yards. McNeese never trailed again. Another game-altering play.

This defense almost singlehandedly vanquished the team’s demon in beating Southeastern Louisiana. There was no one spectacular play or turnover — just total defensive control.

The defense held the Lions to a measly 59 yards rushing, three fumble recoveries, 7 three-and-out series, four sacks and only 7 points in a decisive and season-changing 21-7 home victory.

In that win, Viator finally proclaimed that this team had proved it can out-slug the league’s bigger bully and dominate a truly physical war.

Viator, who leads the offensive brain trust and stays out of the way of the defense, knows good and well that the Cowboys have gotten this far on the broad backs of his hardnosed defenders. He heaps free-flowing praise where praise is due.

“I can’t say enough about what the kids have done and what Lance [Guidry — defensive coordinator] and the staff have done,” said Viator. “[The players] have bought into his mindset — which is to attack — 100 percent. We pressure, no matter the down and distance; no matter the situation. We’re up 17 and we’re still bringing guys after them. That’s just what we do, and the kids believe in what he’s doing. The credit goes to the players and coaches on that side of the ball.”

You’ll hear two common themes when you talk with anyone about this defense. Love and fight. Those two words may be polar opposites. But they just may be at the core of this team’s success.

“We love each other. That’s all I can say,” said senior safety Wallace Scott. “We fight for the man beside you. We pay close attention to detail, and the coaches instill in us we have to make a play.”

Senior Bo Brown, an undersized linebacker who plays with a Herculean heart and grit, sets the tone game in and game out for the SLC’s top rated defense. “Our team is resilient. We fight. We fight to the end like we’ve been doing all year. We own the fourth quarter.”

Ah, the fourth quarter. Many teams pay it homage by raising their hands with the four finger salute at the start of every final quarter.

Maintaining that high level of intensity and execution well into the fourth quarter when you may be beaten up and exhausted both physically and mentally is the difference between victory and defeat in many cases.

Consider that the Cowboys’ defense held opponents scoreless in the second halves in five of their first five games. That’s right — 10 quarters of scoreless football.

There’s no question where the strength of this team lies. The first to fall into the camp of strengths is none other than the quarterback Sams.

“Coming off the field after I’ve just thrown an interception for a touchdown [first quarter versus Sam Houston], Wallace Scott coming over to say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get it back to you, so go make something happen.’ For a guy on the defense to tell me to pick your head up because we’ll get the ball back to you … That’s all the motivation in the world I need, man,” Sams said after the conference championship-clinching win over the BearKats.

Viator, who’s well into his 10th year as head coach, has downplayed his march toward becoming the program’s all-time winningest coach. A victory at Lamar will tie him with former Cowboys head coach Bobby Keasler at 78 total wins. Keasler’s record between 1990-98 stands at 78-34-2. Over Viator’s 10 seasons, his slate now reads 77-32.

It’s been a challenging road at times for Viator. He took over as interim head coach after the firing of Tommy Tate in 2006. He inherited a 1-3 team that was spiraling downward with both on- and off-the-field problems.

Viator continued his duties as offensive coordinator, and promptly righted the ship to take it to a 7-5 finish and a 5-1 conference mark. He captured an improbable conference championship. He won a second consecutive league title with that 2007 undefeated season.

Over the following seven years, though, there have been two 7-4  and three 6-5 finishes. After winning an impressive three SLC titles in his first four years at the helm, Viator has been shut out of the championship club over the last five seasons.

There were rumblings among the blue and gold faithful that Viator had lost his golden touch. His offense was too predictable. Some fans questioned whether his smallish but speedy defenses lacked the backbone and will to battle straight-up with upstart league rivals such as Southeastern Louisiana, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, who pumped up their rosters with a heavy dose of FBS Division 1 transfers.

Viator recently admitted that he had some doubts about ever being able to take this program to the top again. He countered those feelings with the strong belief that his way and his process were the best for McNeese’s long-term success. “I always had doubt, you know. But I thought we were doing it the right way and still do. We recruit kids and bring them along and take a few transfers here and there.”

During many of those so-called down years (note that Viator hasn’t had a losing season) it was an epidemic of injuries to critical starters that hampered both the offense and defenses.

There were stretches when many, if not all the starting running backs, receivers, defensive backs and linebackers were in street clothes, hobbled on the sidelines.

Injuries aren’t an excuse for losing. But they can be the reason you fail to squarely match up against an opponent.  And if you know football, you know it’s a game of match-ups.

In 2013, McNeese finally caught a break and stopped looking like a walking MASH unit. The team was injury-free for the most part; it won 10 games; went 6-1 in the SLC; and secured a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Fast forward to 2015, and anyone with a knowledge of the history of this club will tell you a healthy roster is the primary reason for its unbeaten run. “The biggest key for us is to stay healthy,” said Viator. “We lost guys in August camp, like six or seven, but really haven’t lost anybody since. So we’ve been able to play these weeks and practice these weeks and get better each week. That’s been big for us.”

He points out that the fans and media may view injuries as simply players who are not available for games. But more important, says Viator, is the fact that those who are injured can’t practice either. That hinders his healthy players and respective units from improving by working against the best talent he has.

Makes sense.

What’s been a head scratcher and doesn’t make much sense has been the Cowboys 0-4 record in the playoffs during Viator’s nine previous seasons. At times he’s been at a loss to explain the post-season failures and the 155-44 point differential in those four post-season defeats.

It’s been the ever-present story line in Viator’s ongoing script at McNeese. He’s not in a desperate state of mind, but he is desperate to change the dialogue surrounding his tenure as head coach. Armed with a new three-year contract, he will become McNeese’s winningest head coach at some point. Ironically, it could very well happen with a long-awaited win in the playoffs.

Win or lose at rival Lamar, the Cowboys will remain in the upper FCS echelon of highly ranked teams with a playoff berth. They’re are a solid bet for a first-round bye and home field advantage for the second round of the FCS tournament.

McNeese’s road began with a short bus trip to Baton Rouge for a cancelled game against LSU. It will continue with another short bus hop to Beaumont, where the Cowboys intend to finally hoist their first SLC championship trophy since 2009.

The playoffs and a new round of old questions will begin soon enough.

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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