As the McNeese Cowboys sit on a 2-3 record and their first 0-2 start in SLC play since 2004, it’s safe to say there are more questions than answers for this blue and gold bunch.
For the life of me, I can’t figure some things out when it comes to McNeese’s yo-yo execution and overall performance.
Some of the problems can be chalked up to the game of football. One play, series or quarter goes gang busters and then some mysterious switch gets flipped and all that good turns to bad pretty quickly.
You also have to consider one of the toughest things in sports is winning a football game. And that can be attributed to the fact that the other team has scholarship players too, and they are highly motivated to win, as well.
Football fans are like everyone else in society. They have short attention spans. They Google up answers to any question they may have and instant gratification sits in the palms of their hands. It’s not that easy on the football field, as McNeese loyalists are finding out. The answers are harder to come by.
It’s not a cop out or excuse, but remember, this is a new head coach, and assistants working with different offensive and defensive schemes, ways of communicating, changes of culture and expectations.
I know that first-year head coach Sterlin Gilbert promised during his introductory press conference last December that the cannons would be firing a lot as his up-tempo offense lit up the scoreboard.
I cringed a bit when he said that, given the fact that Gilbert didn’t even know who his starting quarterback would be and had yet to put any of the offensive linemen through basic drills.
Gilbert got Cowboys fans primed and pumped for an explosive, bam bam offense that has been more ho hum through the first five games.
The defense under new veteran defensive coordinator Jim Gush runs pretty much the same 4-2-5 scheme McNeese has been running for years, but they are still susceptible to back-breaking “chunk” plays that go for 30 or more yards.
After the 28-17 home loss to Sam Houston State, I began a question and answer game with myself that will not be confused with Jeopardy by any stretch.
Let’s begin with everyone’s favorite piñata … the offense.
Will this offensive line ever improve in both run and pass blocking?
It hasn’t over the first five games, and I don’t see it happening unless Gilbert changes quarterback Cody Orgeron into a roll-out passer and brings in a tight end to help block, which he did in the second half of the Sam Houston game.
McNeese is last in the conference in total offense, averaging 330 yards per game. It is second to last in offensive scoring, with an 18-point average. It is nearly last in passing offense, first downs and the all important third down conversions, which there were only 4 of 15 of for 26 percent versus Sam Houston.
You can’t put all of this offensive misery on the line. Spread the blame to quarterback, play calling, receivers dropping balls and running backs not hitting holes. But the root of the problems start up front with the O-Line.
Is Cody Orgeron up to the immense task of being starting quarterback?
Obviously with a 2-3 record and 0-2 start in the conference, the jury is still out.
With his limited experience and limited arm strength, Orgeron has to get a lot of help from both his offensive line and game plan. He has quick feet and shifty legs, but he is hamstrung when the pocket breaks down, which unfortunately happens too frequently.
The junior quarterback is not a deep ball threat. But he threw his best pass of the season on that long sideline route to Cyron Sutton that resulted in a 67-yard catch and run for a score against the BearKats.
When Orgeron moves up in the pocket, he doesn’t appear to keep his eyes downfield.
Another unfortunate stat is Orgeron is the Cowboys’ second leading rusher with 174 yards. That means he is forced to tuck it and run way too often.
Orgeron is best suited for a quick release short passing game. If an opponent’s rush overwhelms the O-Line, then Orgeron needs more designed roll outs. Remember those aforementioned lowly offensive stats compared to the rest of the Southland, and his paltry 54 percent completion percentage is the answer to the early question at this point in the season.
But like I said, Orgeron needs his O-Line to step up and his receivers to catch touchdown passes in the endzone (two were dropped in the Sam Houston loss). And Gilbert needs to get the ball out of Oregon’s quicker.
What is McNeese’s offensive identity? Run first? Pass first to set up the run?
Well, at this point, Gilbert will opt for anything that works.
The running game busted out in the loss to Abilene Christian with its best performance. But against Sam Houston’s best-rated rushing defense, the Cowboys ran the ball 27 times for 38 yards, which is barely over one yard per attempt. Most fullbacks can just fall forward for two yards.
The running backs had only 15 carries against Sam Houston. The rest came from Orgeron running for his life.
Don’t get stuck on the hype that up-tempo offenses are pass happy. Gilbert wants to run the football with balance against the pass. He just has not solved the riddle about how to do that consistently. The offensive line allows too much penetration, and the running backs have not been able to break first hits.
I want to believe that collectively, between Justin Pratt, Elijah Mack and J’Cobi Skinner, this team can muster up 100 yards rushing.
I think Gilbert will build a weekly game plan that focuses on what gives him the best chance to move the ball either through the pass or run. Against Sam Houston, it was heavy passing early, and the team built a 14-9 halftime lead.
I know that is nothing to bang your cowbells over, but at this point you better take it, own it and protect it from all sides.
Is the highly touted McNeese defensive line living up to its preseason hype?
I think it is.
Clearly the Cowboys’ defensive front has been the strength of the defense. The linebackers and safeties have given good run support. But the D-Line has been the focal point of the team being in the top five in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and the critical red zone defense.
Defensive ends Chris Livings and Cody Roscoe need more quarterback pressures and sacks, but every team will tell you that. At this pace, Livings may not break the school’s all-time sack total of 31 held by Bryan Smith, but it’s not totally out of reach.
Why does the defensive secondary continually give up big yardage, chuck plays?
Well, let’s start with the season-ending injury to their best cover cornerback, All Southland star Colby Burton, who broke his leg in the first half in the season opener against Southern.
Now that’s out of the way. The secondary has been burned by big plays for what seems like the last five or so years. It’s nothing new. It’s a possible byproduct of a lot of man to man coverages and just plain getting beat by skilled receivers.
The 20-plus-yard explosive plays started against Southern and continued through the Sam Houston loss. Veteran safety Jovon Burriss is frustrated by the defensive lapses, and feels they are equally mental and physical.
“You have to focus and refocus every play. You can’t make a good play and say I can sit back now because the next thing you know — boom — they could be going for 70 yards. You can’t play hard for eight plays and take the ninth one off because the ninth play can be it. You have to stay ready and stay consistent.”
The reality is in today’s pass-happy, spread offenses, there will be more 400- to 450-yard totals allowed by defenses chasing four and five receivers all over the yard.
It’s the nature of the beast that is college football today. That’s why bending with big chunks of yards between the 20-yard lines will happen. The better teams will then puff out their chests and rely on a strong red zone defense to keep the other teams from scoring.
McNeese has another top flight punter in Bailey Raborn. But will he now have to take over field goal duties too?
Freshman kicker Noah Anderson is in a slump after sliding to 4 of 9 on field goal attempts. His 41-yard miss against Sam Houston dropped him to 0-3 between 40 and 48 yards. Raborn came in and hit a 43-yarder in the third quarter for his first career field goal.
The Cowboys need every point they can cobble together, so missed field goals within range will lose games. After Saturday’s loss, Gilbert was noncommittal on his field goal kicker decision.
Will Gilbert’s constant positive spin work if the losses continue to mount?
He does stay on message; I will give him that.
After holding on to win close games against Southern and Alcorn and the loss at Abilene, Gilbert emphasized consistency, execution and finishing games.
Broad themes. Not too specific, but spot on.
The Sam Houston defeat prompted two new areas of concern from Gilbert. “Details and discipline.”
There was not enough attention to the details of doing everything correctly and the discipline to do everything consistently said the head coach. When I pressed him for specifics on details and discipline, Gilbert stayed the course with broad strokes. “They are hand in hand — whatever the scheme is of all three phases being really sound in it. Executing it at the highest level and at the level it’s supposed to be done.”
Gilbert is the master at answering questions by not saying anything specific, and especially not by throwing any particular player or unit under the proverbial bus. He must study Tom Brady press conferences, because the NFL quarterback GOAT is a master at the art of talking and not saying anything.
The Cowboys’ rookie head coach plays it close to the vest, keeping the media and fans at a distance when it comes to what he is really thinking. I have tried to crack his code with rephrased questions and probes, but he resorts back to canned lines from the book of coach speak.
I don’t fault him for that, especially in his first year as head coach of a struggling team trying to find its footing on the slippery slope that is the Southland Conference race.
I was able to get this nugget out of him. “We know we are close: going out and executing in all three phases the scheme and doing it at a consistent level. Match that with the effort that we play at and the intensity that we play at — that will really increase the opportunity for success and getting the results that we work for and that we are coaching for. That’s what we are working towards everyday.”
Hmm? I will keep trying and digging.
Are the expectations for this team too high?
Well, that depends on whom you talk to. But yes, they probably were before the season.
I think the majority of McNeese fans bought into Gilbert being the offensive savior and putting this team into conference contention in his first season.
Gilbert and his top coordinators felt the Cowboys would be competitive, but stopped short of predicting title runs this early.
Athletic Director Bruce Hemphill and University President Dr. Daryl Burckel just wanted a change in culture, discipline and academic performance. They too want more wins than losses, but understand it’s not an overnight process.
The Southland Conference preseason polls pegged McNeese at No. 6 in the middle of the league’s pack.
I had the Pokes at 6-5 when it’s all done.
I know what I know from what I’ve seen, and I don’t know if they can still get there from here.
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.