Out Of The Hunt

Rick Sarro Friday, November 4, 2016 Comments Off on Out Of The Hunt
Out Of The Hunt

You’ve heard it before.

A person’s character is best measured not by how they have fallen but by how well they pick themselves up and respond to adversity.

That character test will be most evident in the coming weeks for the McNeese Cowboys, as they have suddenly dropped two straight SLC games, eliminating any hope of defending their conference championship from last year.

The last-second, heart-break loss to Southeastern Louisiana, followed by the 35-0 beat down by Central Arkansas, also ended any slim hopes the Pokes had for the FCS playoffs.

The season, which began with much promise, along with a Top 10 ranking, is now at a crossroads between playing with pride, passion and effort or allowing the downward spiral of turnovers, “chunk” plays and mistakes to continue.

The Cowboys will have to find solace and comfort in playing the spoiler role over the remaining conference schedule from here on out.

How this team responds to this turnabout in fortunes could very well lay the foundation for seasons to come, according to senior and team leader running back Dylan Long. “I have to step up to show these kids how you are supposed to play the game of football. So now these guys are going to take it (the season) as far as they want. I have four more games left in my career for the rest of my life, so I am really going to take it upon myself to show them how to play the game.”

Due to a knee injury suffered in a preseason scrimmage in August of 2014, Long took a medical redshirt year and sat out the undefeated and conference championship season of 2015. He returned with high hopes and goals for his final season.

“Ultimately, we can’t control what’s in the past now. No one can.”

Admittedly, the recent weeks will be difficult to forget in the context of what might have been. If Jermaine Antoine’s interception attempt had succeeded on that sideline bomb in Hammond … If the Cowboys hadn’t opened up with two early game fumbles in the first quarter, only to follow with two more interceptions in the second quarter against Central Arkansas …

With Sam Houston and Central Arkansas streaking to the top of the SLC, unbeaten every game from here on out put the team under the heading of playoff.

It was a must-win situation. There was no margin for error. Losing was not an option — not if McNeese intended to extend their season beyond Thanksgiving anyway.

So the colossal ineptitude of the Cowboys’ offense against Central Arkansas came suddenly and was shocking. The 35-0 final margin was the first shutout of McNeese since the 2001 season when the team fell to Western Kentucky 21-0, and the first scoreless Southland game since a 37-0 loss to North Texas in 1988.

The Cowboys went into the Central Arkansas game ranked third in the league in total offense and third in scoring, averaging 423 total yards and over 31 points per game. First-year starter James Tabary was second only to Sam Houston’s record-setting Jeremiah Briscoe in the rankings for the SLC’s best quarterback.

Tabary had the Pokes’ passing attack situated a solid No. 2 in the conference behind Sam Houston State, collecting over 300 yards passing per game.

So why the collapse? What prompted this sudden fall from offensive grace?

I don’t think it was all that sudden to be honest. The league’s better defenses were beginning the catch up with the Cowboys’ passing attack and limiting its effectiveness primarily because the once full-steam-ahead running game has been derailed.

“Even when people have loaded the box, we have been able to run it,” said assistant head coach Lark Hebert following the Central Arkansas defeat.  “You have to be able to run the football and play good defense. We have been struggling running the ball a little bit.  Defensively we’ve stopped the running game at times, but [are] not consistent enough.”

Without the real threat of the run, the play action is dead on the spot. Defenses are able to better detect and read Tabary’s tendencies.

I contend that if you live by a one-edged sword (passing game only), then you could easily die by that same sword. Your receivers will need consistent separation with minimal drops. And most of all, your quarterback must be well protected and looking like an all-conference star every game.

That’s a lot to ask of Tabary, a sophomore transfer in only his first year under offensive coordinator Landon Hoefer’s direction and schemes.

The other edge of that sword that has scarred the Cowboys has been turnovers — fumbles in particular. McNeese has had at least one fumble in every game except their two best performances of the year against Tarleton State in the opener and their best overall win versus Nicholls State.

That’s five lost fumbles in the last two games to go with three interceptions. In many ways, it’s the tale of the tape for McNeese.

Leading rusher Ryan Ross has been plagued with uncharacteristic fumbles this year. His early turnover on the Cowboys’ first possession killed a promising, momentum-setting drive against Central Arkansas. His muff on a lateral pass earlier in the year led to UL-L’s first touchdown.

LaWayne Ross’ first quarter fumble after a critical goal-line, fourth-down stop by the McNeese defense denied the Cowboys any and all momentum. Central Arkansas turned that turnover into their first seven points, and away they went.

A cure to this curious case of the fumbles may be found on the practice field; as Hebert said after the loss, the running backs “obviously need to hold it higher and tuck it.”

The rash of turnovers over the two losses has resulted in huge momentum shifts. Good teams with experience like the Cowboys answer adversity with a focused determination and grab the momentum back with big plays of their own. The problem is how many times can you successfully do that when repeated turnovers continue to put you behind the eight ball?

“It happens all the time in games where the momentum swings, but it never swung for us tonight (versus Central Arkansas). It stayed on their side and never did come visit the old Cowboys’ side,” Hebert said. “Give them credit. They had a lot to do with that. They caused turnovers and were tough on defense. We got to a point where we felt like we had to throw it and couldn’t run it.

“Any time you think you are going to get a break, you don’t get a break — and it actually worked against us. We are dealing with 21-year-old kids, and there are mental games, too, with them.”

The entire mental approach to this game was up in the air once it was learned of the tragedy that struck head coach Lance Guidry and his family before the game.

Earlier in the day, Guidry’s older brother Larry died in Columbus, Ga. Coach Guidry’s not being on the field for pregame warm-ups was the first indication something wasn’t right. Hebert shared that a short time before kick-off, Lance was with his family in his office. According to Hebert, the team was simply told it was a “family emergency.” But he admitted that with the scope and reach of social media, many of the players discovered what had happened.

When Guidry joined the team as they entered the stadium, many went up to their popular coach and engulfed him in hugs and whispers of sorrow and support.

You had to wonder about Guidry’s state of mind on the sideline so soon after losing his brother. But there was no way this devoted and dedicated head coach would be anywhere else on game night if he could help it.

Hebert, a trusted friend and fellow McNeese coach for many years, agreed. “I thought he was good. I thought the game was good for him. After what had happened and what he had to go through and kind of get his mind off of that. Get him back focused on the game. He was upbeat. He was talking to the kids. He was coaching the kids and coaching the coaches. I was impressed with the way he handled himself.”

Word spread of Guidry’s family situation while players were still in the locker room. According to Tabary, many players hugged their coach behind closed doors. Human nature might lead the players to lose focus on the game at hand, but Tabary said that was not the case. “We were going to go play McNeese football, you know. Nothing was going to change, and we were going to play that game. And he understood that too. You could see he was really down, but once he got to the field, he just changed his mode and was able to maybe stop thinking about that death.”

Long, who has been around Guidry the longest among the players after gaining an extra year with the knee injury, called him “one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” and reminded his coach that he was there for him, as was the entire team.

So Long and his fellow Cowboys must have felt an even harsher sting after this humiliating defeat in the wake of Guidry’s family loss and heavy heart. The senior from Covington, La., said the team was “pumped up and ready to play this game,” but fell to the canvas when the physical battle became so one-sided.

“The biggest thing with this team is that we have to be willing to punch back whenever we are getting punched in the face. Me personally, I have not seen that from anybody. We just need to pick that up.”

There are many pieces of the puzzling 3-4 season these Cowboys will have to pick up over the ensuing weeks.

The Southland Conference championship will surely go to either Sam Houston or Central Arkansas. (The Bears and BearKats will meet November 19 at Sam Houston in a game that should ultimately decide the league title.) The SLC champion and runner-up will earn spots in the post-season tournament.

McNeese will not. Pre-season goals can no longer be achieved. And that must hurt after all that work over the spring, off-season and August camp.

With four games remaining, the aim must be to correct the glaring mistakes and finish strong.

“On the sidelines, people are just hanging their heads, and we have to change that,” says Long. “And me, as a senior, I have to change that personally — for them to go on further the next couple of years and learn how to play the game of football.”

For these coaches and players, football can be all-encompassing. It’s the nature of the game. But they learned that there are aspects of life that are more important.

This week, Lance Guidry put all that is his football life aside to grieve and bury a loving brother.

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