You haven’t forgotten about the McNeese Cowboys have you?
Based on the fans’ attendance over the two home games so far, I have to ask the question.
You Blue and Gold diehards, don’t take offense. None is intended. But with occupied seats well below even the lowest expectations and standards, you have to wonder.
If you only consider the most important stats, which are the 1-4 record and 0-2 start in the Southland Conference, you might think the Cowboys will forget about the rest of the season and pack it in.
Not so fast, Buckaroos.
These Pokes might be buried in a fairly formidable hole, but there is still much to be played for and six more games to turn the season around.
A 1-4 start at the midway part of the schedule with an open date on Oct. 9 is not the time to ring a death knell.
Now don’t get me wrong. Things are not peachy by any means. And this team has more than a few deficiencies.
Don’t get me started on the kicking game — not yet anyway.
Before the season, I had the Cowboys penciled in with a 3-2 start at best. My predicted wins back in August were over West Florida at home, a road win over Southern and a home victory over Southeastern Louisiana. I had LSU and Incarnate Word, both road games, in the loss column.
But they did. It wasn’t a huge crime, as the Argos were talented and primed to play after opting out of their 2020 season due to COVID concerns.
The Southern victory was hard fought, as indicated by the close 31-24 score. The Cowboys had to mount a pretty fierce second half rally to beat the Jags. Their offensive slow starts and second half pick-me-ups have turned into an unwelcome theme for this McNeese bunch.
Cody Orgeron, the sixth year senior quarterback who drives the offense, is both encouraged and frustrated by the team’s Jekyll and Hyde performance through five games, and particularly after the 38-35 loss against 14th ranked Southeastern Louisiana.
“It sucks being 0-2 (in conference play). It’s part of the game. You win some and lose some. Our team showed some fight (versus the Lions) and explosive plays. We flashed some in the second half. And if we can just come out every game and start from the first drive like that, I think it would be a little different for us. Learn from the mistakes. Clean them up and move on,” said an optimistic Orgeron.
The Pokes have been plagued by tortoise-like starts to the tune of being outscored 100 to 30 in the first half over the first five games. That’s a numbers game that needs to be changed if they hope for any improvement.
Such a change would force a few more locker room adjustments and the use of a lot of energy over the final 30 minutes of play to try to get back just to even keel.
The team was successful to a point against West Florida, Southern and Southeastern, but still dropped two of those three games.
Another way to dissect the games so far is to consider the status of each opponent and the cream of their respective rosters.
West Florida was the Division II national champ, and believe me, they don’t look or play like your usual lower level team.
LSU … well, is LSU. The 2019 college football national champions are not that far removed from the 15-0 season considered by many as the greatest season in the history of the game. You won’t get much of an argument from me.
Southern is one of the top teams in the SWAC. They were at home and had a senior quarterback with a top tier skill set.
Incarnate Word has young quarterback Cameron Ward, who is the reigning winner of the Jerry Rice Award, which is given to the top freshman player in FCS football.
And then there was Southeastern Louisiana, who is ranked in the top 15 in FCS polls. It’s first in total defense and offense in the Southland. And their quarterback Cole Kelley, at 6 feet, 7 inches, 260 pounds, won the prestigious Walter Payton Award last spring as the top player in the FCS. The Payton Award is the Heisman Trophy of the FCS.
With all that said, McNeese should not be 1-4. But they are, and for various reasons.
Simply put, West Florida, Incarnate Word and Southeastern have better talent at specific key positions compared to McNeese.
Offensive line is an obvious place to start.
The Cowboys losing key transfer offensive linemen Romello Tarver and Trey Winters can’t be overstated. Tarver at left tackle is injured and his return date is unknown. Winters’ transfer got caught up in some national junior college bureaucracy that will probably sideline him for the rest of the season.
These two behemoths came in for August camp and quickly established themselves as starters. The voids they have left on the offensive line are obvious every time Orgeron retreats for a pass.
McNeese receivers are solid possession type players, but don’t get open consistently enough. And ever since speedster wideout Cee Jay Powell went down with an injury in the season opener, the offense has lacked a down-the-field deep threat.
In most of the games, the defense has been on the field way too much, especially when the offense is in first half slow motion mode. The front seven have not been able to pressure the quarterbacks as much as expected. Star defensive ends Isaiah Chambers and Mason Kinsey are still two the SLC’s best, but they have to affect opposing quarterbacks more over the final six games.
The Cowboys’ secondary has had various injuries to overcome, and for the most part has held its ground against four- and even five-receiver sets. Explosive plays and defending the end zone have been their Achilles heels.
Stats tell part of the story, but are not the full narrative most of the time. But you can’t ignore the fact that the Cowboys are last in the Southland for pass defense and passing defense efficiency.
Another position that’s been a challenge for McNeese is quarterback. Cody Orgeron is not a dynamic quarterback, like a Cole Kelley, Cameron Ward or Lindsey Scott (Nicholls). He has had some stinker games and subpar stretches in others.
Orgeron may not be the biggest quarterback or possess the strongest arm in the league, but he is a tough, gutsy, willful competitor who can make plays with his legs and arm. He protects the ball (he now owns the school record for the most consecutive passes without an interception) and in some games is the team’s best rusher.
His numbers don’t jump out at you every week — Orgeron is in the middle of the pack in most passing categories in the SLC — but he has accounted for more than 300 yards in total offense a number of times, including 323 total yards in the Southeastern La. game.
As with any starting QB on a losing team, there are always whispers among fan circles that Orgeron should be replaced.
I’m not sure what games those folks are watching or whether they have seen the reserve quarterbacks in action.
Believe me, Orgeron is the least of head coach Frank Wilson’s worries.
Tops on that list is the kicking game. McNeese has none.
Points after kicks and 30-yard field goal attempts cause Wilson to break out in cold sweats.
I can’t sugar coat the Pokes’ woeful kicking and punting. It ain’t pretty. It was a key factor in the losses to West Florida and Southeastern Louisiana.
Wilson says McNeese is not good enough right now to overcome missed opportunities like dropped passes, turnovers and missed chip shot field goals and point after kicks.
Incarnate Word’s 28 point defeat of the Pokes last spring was followed by two close losses to SLU and Lamar.
That recent 31-0 shocking shutout loss to UIW was clearly McNeese’s worst showing so far. They were flat. Sluggish. Uninspired and unprepared.
Once again, the boys in blue followed an Incarnate Word loss with a close defeat to Southeastern. It was a game McNeese could have won over a ranked team with a play here or there.
Wilson knows all too well he is judged on that all-important stat line of W’s and L’s, but he is encouraged and proud of how his team has given him hard effort, a never-ending fight to win and a high level of competitiveness.
The fact remains that an 0-2 hole in the Southland will be a hard climb. But the ever-optimistic Wilson is of the mindset that his Cowboys have the fortitude, focus and fire to turn the season around.
“If we can win out and split with those two teams (the Cowboys will play UIW and Southeastern La. again later in the coming weeks) we are right back in the middle of this thing,” Wilson said confidently.
“Tall task. But certainly one that we are up for as we try and position ourselves to still make an impact on this league and conference play.”
Making a few 30-yard field goals would be a great start in my book.
Catch Rick Sarro’s sports commentary Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and Saturdays at 6:30 and 11 pm. It also airs nightly at 9 pm on SuddenLink Cable.