You expect the sun to rise and set every day.
You expect your car or truck to start on every turn of the ignition or those fancy push buttons. (Can anyone tell me why there is no advance alert or warning light when your battery is dead or dying?)
You expect your favorite grocery store to have milk, eggs and bread in stock.
You expect cold beer when you sit down at the bar.
You expect the Democrats and Republicans to never agree on anything except maybe more daylight savings time.
You expect Drew Brees to always say the right thing with class after a win or loss.
You expect Ed Orgeron to say “geaux Tigers” at the end of every one of his answers during on-field media interviews.
You expect Tom Brady to look perfect during his postgame press conferences and coach Bill Bilichick to mumble.
You expect to always get caught in a traffic jam on I-10 East in Baton Rouge.
You expect a gumbo on the stove once the temperatures dip below 50 degrees.
So what did you expect from these McNeese Cowboys in 2019?
I hope you didn’t actually convince yourself that they would contend for the Southland Conference championship during the first year of head coach Sterlin Gilbert’s tenure.
Come on now. You didn’t buy into Gilbert’s belief that the cannons at Cowboy Stadium would be running out of ammo because of all the touchdowns his offense would be scoring this season?
McNeese fans, surely you know he was just getting you fired up during his introductory press conference last December.
Gilbert was not inheriting an all conference quarterback or a stellar offensive line. He had no clue who would be under center much less who would be his center. It’s very rare to have a Sean Payton-Drew Brees situation and get lucky acquiring a future Hall of Fame quarterback in your first year as head coach.
It takes time to build a football team and program. You’ve heard it before, but it’s true. It’s like building a house. First you need a good contractor (head coach). Then great materials (players). And it begins with laying a solid foundation (culture, discipline, locker room) and then putting the pieces together in the correct places following your blue prints.
It goes without saying it takes much longer to build a successful football team than a house.
It’s the human element versus just bricks and wood.
It’s not shocking to me that the McNeese Cowboys are 3-4 overall and now 1-3 in the Southland. I figured they’d have a 6-5 record at best if they were able to steal a game or two in the league. Losing road games to Abilene and Central Arkansas should have been expected, as was the loss at home to Sam Houston. The win over a tough Southeastern squad was like an extra scoop of ice cream.
The question now is can the Pokes muster three more victories with three of their last five games on the road?
Houston Baptist is next at home, with the Huskies falling huge last week to Abilene by 25 points. As of this writing, Northwestern Louisiana is winless and Stephen F. Austin is struggling at 1-5. Nicholls State (tops in the SLC at 3-0) and Lamar — upset winners over Sam Houston — figure to be tough outs.
So, to get to my 6-5 mark the Cowboys need to buck up and gut out home wins over HBU and Northwestern and make sure they don’t slip up on the road at SFA.
The open date, Nov. 9, before trips to Nicholls and Lamar comes at a great time for the Cowboys to regroup, put on their spoiler hats and steal one from either the Colonels or Cardinals.
Look, I know no one likes the spoiler role reference and chatter about stealing upsets. This is a proud program accustomed to winning seasons, hoisting SLC championship trophies (14 in total) and being in title contention in November.
But with three league losses, a spoiler role is the Cowboys’ reality. Part of that new reality is the possibility of the program’s first losing season since 2004.
How they got here is pretty simple. You start with great raw materials, remember, and McNeese doesn’t have enough star players in critical positions as of yet. Now, many could be stars in the making but need more time to develop and gain experience.
A new head coach like Gilbert and his nearly entirely new staff needs time to recruit the players they feel best fit their offensive and defensive systems. That usually takes two to three years, depending on how active you are with transfers.
I know Gilbert brought in upwards of 10 transfer players during the off-season, and more than a few have paid some dividends in areas other than the offensive line and defensive secondary.
Those two position groups have been the most inconsistent, along with field goal kicking.
The offensive line has been dinged with injuries, but that’s par for the course in the college game. Every O-Line has to be prepared to shuttle players in and out of the starting lineup.
The secondary has simply not fully recovered from the loss of starting All-SLC cornerback and defensive leader Colby Burton, who suffered a broken leg in the season opener against Southern. Don’t underestimate the impact of one player with the cover talent and caliber of Burton. Defensive coordinator Jim Gush had to know his ability to cover half the field and lock down an opponent’s top receiver was severely compromised with Burton sidelined. (Burton will redshirt and return for his senior season in 2020.)
It all begins and ends with the quarterback, unless you’re the 1985 Chicago Bears or the defensive juggernaut that was the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
It surprised me that Gilbert didn’t bring in an experienced transfer quarterback for August camp competition, especially after highly touted Cameron Smith left the team during spring. Either there was none to his liking or he really liked Cody Orgeron and Matt Keller.
Orgeron, with limited prep experience and few collegiate snaps, has struggled at times, as any first-year starter would. But through seven games, he has progressed mightily into a very capable starting quarterback in the conference and one who has made plays with his arm and legs.
Over the first four games, his arm or play-calling limited his ability to stretch the field with deep passes. But Orgeron has been given the green light to throw downfield over the last three weeks.
A paltry 170-yard passing average to open the season has morphed into 290 yards per game over the last three weeks, along with nine touchdown passes.
Orgeron has mastered the art of running for his life at times, and added the ability to look downfield while doing it.
At 6 feet, 1 inch, 180 pounds, he has absorbed enough shocks to always be able to get up and shake off the pain while starting and finishing all seven games.
Availability is important, as is Orgeron’s leadership and toughness.
As I said, a team’s success starts at the most important position, and Orgeron has not held this team back particularly over the last three weeks.
What has is a variety of defensive lapses in the secondary that has allowed a slew of long touchdown plays to uncovered or completely forgotten receivers. Also a plethora of penalties has forced the offense to overcome first down and 20 yards. Mix in special team blunders like muffed punts, fumbled kickoff returns and the latest high snap to the punter, and you have obvious miscues that lead to losses.
Gilbert calls it discipline and details, which the Cowboys have yet to execute for a full 60 minutes on a given Saturday.
Tim Rebowe didn’t turn Nicholls State, once perennial losers in the Southland, into a conference power overnight. Don’t cringe over the comparison between McNeese and Nicholls State. I know the Cowboys are legacy and the Colonels are nouveau rich. But the tables have turned somewhat in the SLC, and McNeese may find itself sitting at the kiddie table this season with a 6-5, or even 5-6, record.
The Cowboys program has never shied away from high expectations. In fact they have welcomed them. But you have realized that sometimes those lofty goals are hard to play up to and the fans may have to dial it back a bit.
For this season anyway.
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.