Game One: In The Books

Rick Sarro Thursday, September 19, 2019 Comments Off on Game One: In The Books
Game One: In The Books

The governor was there. So were 20,437 fans. That set a new Cowboy Stadium single game attendance record.

A slew of former Cowboys, including McNeese Hall of Famer Leonard Smith (a rare appearance) and last year’s starting quarterback James Tabary, turned out. Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett most certainly was on hand for the league’s marquee opening week matchup.

A Cowboy Stadium record of crowd of 20, 437 witnessed McNeese defeat Southern, 32-28. Photo by Ricky Hickman

They were all there to see the long-awaited unveiling of the 2019 McNeese Cowboys and the inaugural game of new head coach Sterlin Gilbert.

The game was clunky at times, but the Cowboys put forth what Gilbert described as a “relentless effort” in a hard-fought 34-28 season opening win over Southern University.

The final scoreboard tally was important, and I will get into why and how McNeese defeated Southern. But the scene at Cowboy Stadium and the campus was of as much magnitude and significance as the victory.  

It was 17 years to the day since The Hole attracted more than 20,000 fans for a Cowboys football game:  August 31, 2002, when 20,300 crammed into the stadium for McNeese versus Grambling. The common denominators are obvious: a popular in-state SWAC team with a large fan base that will travel. And of course, both teams have world-renowned marching bands that have enormous numbers of followers unto themselves.

These sell-out matchups and the money generated through ticket sales and concessions can be the difference between a budget surplus or deficit by season’s end for the McNeese football program.

It’s simple math. But the scheduling of these games is far from simple.  One simple truth is a home and home series with the likes of Grambling, Southern and maybe even UL-Monroe will be financially beneficial to both sides.  

As attendance levels drop at college stadiums across the country, across all conferences — big and small, athletic officials at FCS programs like McNeese and Southern, along with UL-Monroe and UL-Lafayette, need to get a serious dose of reality and come to the bargaining table willing to schedule these games come hell or high water.

MSU punter Bailey Raborn was named the LSWA Special Teams Player of the Week. Photo by Raymond Stewart. Photo by Raymond Stewart

The Ragin’ Cajuns can bank on a sellout crowd when McNeese visits Cajun Field in 2020. The problem is UL-Lafayette will not return the favor by agreeing to a home game and contract at McNeese. They will cite NCAA restrictions on traveling to an FCS school amid other excuses. But it’s time the NCAA, UL-Lafayette, UL-Monroe — and let’s throw in Louisiana Tech — wake up to game attendance woes and smell the green of money that these intrastate games can generate.

Besides the much-needed revenue these games will surely inject the critical three Es I believe these state athletic directors are missing the boat on: energy, excitement and exposure for the programs and their customers … the fans.

I don’t know of any pressing reasons Grambling and Southern can’t schedule games against McNeese, UL-Lafayette or Tulane more than once every 17 years!   

 I know McNeese is now 14-0 over SWAC teams. But hey, Grambling and Southern folks, don’t kick a gift horse in the mouth over a few losses. Wake up to the real world of dwindling sports attendance. 

I can’t for the life of me figure out why the two ULs in Lafayette and Monroe won’t agree to more matchups with McNeese even if it’s a two for one deal (McNeese travels for two games to get one home game).

McNeese has to get on board with this as well. I give them credit and kudos for chasing games with UL-Lafayette and Southern. It took over a decade to get the Jaguars scheduled in Lake Charles. But there is more work to be done on the always difficult nonconference schedule.

It was reported that UL-Lafayette sold a bit over 14,000 tickets to their season opener against the SEC’s Mississippi State — in the SuperDome no less. It was a dismal attendance failure for the Ragin’ Cajuns, who contractually, as the home team, had to “arrange for and pay all costs associated with utilizing the Superdome.”

Ouch. Check, please.

Could it be UL-Lafayette university officials would rather lose hundreds of thousands of dollars than play a sellout home and home series with McNeese and make, say, a $100,000 on the game?

A message to UL-L, UL-M, Southern, Grambling, Tulane and La. Tech:  put your pride to the side and give the fans what they want, which is more intrastate rivalry games. Figure it out with the NCAA or your hoity-toity boosters and do what’s right for your program, the fans and your bank accounts.

Now back to our regularly scheduled sports column and the McNeese- Southern season opener …

It was Christmas in August despite the blazing heat and sweltering humidity as the generous Jaguars gifted the Pokes with six fumbles, losing five with three coming on muffed punts. The turnovers gave the McNeese offense short fields to work from for 24 points en route to perfect five for five red zone scoring.

I can only imagine the reactions of the Southern coaching staff when they sit down to review the game tape of the circus that was the Jags’ laughable attempts and fielding of punts. Those  miscues paved the way to the McNeese victory.

“You never know when those games will be (decided by turnovers from opponents),” Gilbert said. “Whatever it takes to win, we are willing to do. I am proud and excited about our guys’ [ability] to create turnovers. We were able to get those and produced points from those turnovers.”

Surprisingly, and to their credit, the Cowboys did not have any turnovers. That’s pretty amazing with a first-year starting quarterback in Cody Orgeron and an opening game played in front of a record crowd. Orgeron, who recovered his own first-series fumble, said they have stressed “ball security” over spring and fall practices to a point of obsession.

I have a sneaking suspicion Gilbert and the coaching staff will be obsessing over the 177 yards in penalties this week as they prepare for a road game against the Big 12’s Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

I overheard defensive coordinator Jim Gush during a late game sideline defensive huddle scream “no more penalties.” There may have been an expletive or two thrown in to emphasize his point, which is totally understandable.

If there was one glaring stat from the McNeese side, it had to be those 16 flags. That’s the most I can recall in a single game over the last many seasons. To be fair, there were three egregious pass interference calls against the Cowboys that were not as bad as the “NOLA No Call,” but close. “No comments on the officials,” Gilbert said after I asked him for his thoughts on the penalties and the ref’s interpretations of pass interference.

“We will continue to coach our guys on what is legal and illegal. When you are physical on that side of the ball (defense), guys play to the whistle. We are going to keep coaching our guys hard and expecting our guys to play hard.”

Playing with intensity has to be coupled with playing smart. And once the game tape is dissected, the staff will see some personal foul penalties that must be avoided.

Gilbert’s brand of up-tempo spread offense took about two quarters to get cranking, as was evidenced by a 3-yard average per offensive play in the first half. Not exactly the explosive, turbo-charged offense many were expecting.  

But as the game progressed you could see the rhythm coming and plays breaking clear through the pass and run.

“Some early downs produced some yards and [so did] having some tempo and rhythm about us,” explained Gilbert. “It’s something we have to continue to work on and go out and execute to create that tempo for us so we can maneuver the ball down the field.” 

When the Cowboys were poised to take advantage of the many Southern turnovers, Orgeron called on receiver Trevor Begue, who is filling the role that was to be manned by Parker Orgeron. Parker, the twin brother to Cody, was forced to end his collegiate playing career after last season due to numerous concussions.

Begue had three catches for 50 yards, with two of them going for critical touchdowns. The second scoring grab was at the end of a beautifully thrown sideline pass from Orgeron to a diving Begue, who bounced off the endzone turf with possession and a 24-14 McNeese lead. “It was an OK catch but it was more of the ball (Orgeron’s pass).” The quarterback sitting nearby in the postgame press conference waiting his turn in front of the media exclaimed it was “his great catch.”

These two undersized and underestimated players have been building this chemistry for a couple of years now. But it really started to click in August camp as the reps increased as both were elevated to starters. “Me and Cody came in together with the class of 2016 and we’ve been running three and two (third and second teamers) and now we’ve built everything up to this moment.” Begue said, smiling. “This has been happening for a while, but it’s now coming to light on the big stage.

“It’s cool to see this finally pay off.  We’ve done it. We’ve talked about it. [We’ve] done it in practice, and now we are moving it to the game.”

Gilbert promised a fast, up-tempo spread attack when one was needed to win the game. And the Cowboys leaned on that quickened pace for much of the game. Orgeron thought the game plan worked because it was based on “playing fast, physical football.” 

And the offensive tempo had the Jag’s defense on their heels according to Orgeron. “Tempo will kill a defense. You could see it when they were lining up, as they wanted no more of that tempo. It’s a huge advantage on our side.”

The junior quarterback from Mandeville connected on 15 of 22 passes with 147 yards and no interceptions.  His legs accounted for 33 yards rushing on 13 carries. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but they’re solid against an experienced senior-heavy and talented Jaguar defense. “He made some big-time throws,” Gilbert said. “Did some really good things with the ball in his hands. And just like everyone else on this football team, [he was] going back to work. I know he’s a guy that is anxious to continue to grow and get better.  Identifying those things and coaching those points as we grow with him week to week.”

If you were expecting a Gilbert offense that threw the ball around the yard at will, you were sadly mistaken.  The Cowboys ran 76 plays for 303 yards. They handed it off to running backs along with quarterback rushes to the tune of 52 times compared to only 24 pass attempts. That’s over double the run plays compared to the pass. 

But Gilbert has said all along he intended to establish the run using spread formations. The low 3-yard average per carry will have to improve. But he showed that McNeese has a stable of four running backs at its disposal that will keep fresh legs attacking a defense.

That clunkiness I referred to earlier was the expected communication glitches on getting plays called and signaled in quickly, both with the offense and defense. Put that on the laundry list of things to clean up along with the 177 yards in penalties, missed open field tackles, offensive consistency and giving up two long touchdown passes on man coverage.

 Those two secondary lapses and the injuries to McNeese’s two starting cornerbacks will be the story and concern as the team prepares for FBS Power Five beast Oklahoma State.  The two Southern scoring strikes downfield came with senior All SLC cornerback Colby Burton sidelined after injuring his right leg in the first quarter.

Burton, who is McNeese’s best cover corner, won’t be covering anyone in Stillwater, as he left the bench with a boot and was forced to use crutches. By Lagniappe’s press deadline, McNeese had released no official injury report and no status report on Burton’s possible availability. The fact he didn’t return to the sideline in street clothes for the second half of the Southern game leads me to believe the injury was serious enough to be season-ending.  

If that is the case, and Burton is lost for the year, it would be a serious blow to the secondary and the defense overall. The senior all conference star was being counted on for his coverage skills, defensive smarts and leadership.

To make matters worse, Darion Dunn went down late in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be a thigh, hamstring or groin injury. His status was also unknown as of press time.

“Whenever they got hurt it changed the game really fast,” said sophomore safety Andre Sam. “But I believe we have very good depth at both corners.” Colby Richardson and Calum Foster are listed on the depth chart as backups to both Burton and Dunn and will need to amp up their games (the entire defense will need to follow suit) for an Oklahoma State offense that steamrolled Oregon State 52-36.

The other Cowboys (O.S.U.) scored on their first seven drives, notching six touchdowns and a field goal. In total, those seven possessions ran up 473 yards behind a dual threat quarterback in redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders and star running back Chuba Hubbard’s 221 yards and three touchdowns.

If starters Burton and Dunn are sidelined, which appears likely, the home-town Cowboys may be challenged to keep the points gap within 40. I would guess Gilbert will slow down the tempo, try to control the clock if he can and shorten the game.

As far as the season-opening victory goes, the McNeese positives begin with no turnovers, 24 points off Southern fumbles, five for five scoring opportunities in the red zone, a solid 42 percent third-down conversion rate, winning the time of possession, Noah Anderson’s two of three field goals and Bailey Raborn’s booming 50-plus-yard punts.

I suspect two things will be prominent in big bold letters on the McNeese white boards in every meeting room this week … “Penalties and finishing.” 

The Cowboys were up by 20 points late in the game, but saw the Jaguars tack on two quick touchdowns to make it interesting at the end.  

“Every game is a full four quarters,” cautioned Orgeron. “Full 60 minutes, man. You can’t take the petal off the gas. [You must end up] finishing opponents and not giving them a chance or hope at the end of a game.”

He’s young but learning fast.

More lessons to come at Oklahoma State.

Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL.  Check local listings.

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