It may not be to the exact week or month, but as the McNeese football fortunes were descending in 2018, Incarnate Word began its rise from the football ashes, so to speak.
And if the latest turf war between the two is any indication, there is still a fairly wide gap between the 4-1 Cardinals and the 1-4 Cowboys.
Don’t kill the messenger and try to remember what I have been preaching for decades. Athletic success and turnarounds are cyclical and there are thin lines that can decide winning and losing. Always know, though, that the sports gods help those who help themselves.
Earlier this season, it was said McNeese should model the path of top-ranked Montana State in hopes of regaining its stature on the national FCS stage. I would agree on that macro view. But a better and more narrow lens for the Cowboys would have them focused on UIW and how they transformed from a league afterthought into an SLC champion over the last five years.
The trajectory between the two programs went in different directions because of two critical moves and decisions.
Incarnate Word got the head coach and quarterback right.
The formula is pretty simple in football. Coach and quarterback. If you don’t get those two things right, you are in for some tough times. The football gods always seem to look kindly on those who have pegged the head coach and quarterback.
I don’t have any hard and fast, quantitative evidence, but it seems to me the NFL and college programs have hired more offensive coaches in the top jobs because you build and win games with offense.
Incarnate Word was spot on hiring Texas Tech offensive coordinator Eric Morris as the Cardinals’ head coach in 2018. The Red Raiders’ offense was one of the best in the FBS under Morris. He helped make Patrick Mahomes … well, Patrick Mahomes. That pretty much sums it up.
Morris then went out and found a young quarterback named Cameron Ward. He singlehandedly beat McNeese in two lopsided blowouts. The Cowboys got some much-needed revenge, winning last season 28-20, giving UIW its only conference loss.
Morris and Ward won or shared two Southland championships in 2018 and 2021. Morris is now the offensive coordinator at PAC 12’s Washington State, where he brought up Ward. And both are having success at the Power 5 level.
Since 2018, McNeese’s record is 21-25 with four head coaching changes.
The football formula is simple, but McNeese has had trouble figuring it out.
The parallels between UIW and McNeese are ironically similar again this season, despite the huge difference in records and game results.
Both have first-year head coaches in Gary Goff and Incarnate Word’s G.J. Kinne. Both brought in a significant number of transfer players and both teams’ rosters are heavy with freshmen.
The Cowboys and Cards both have new starting quarterbacks with new assistant coaches and offensive systems. But that’s where the similarities come to a screeching halt.
Incarnate Word got the quarterback right again in veteran Lindsey Scott, Jr. The much traveled senior is the Tom Brady of college football in the sense of his longevity. He is 24, but seems to have been around for a decade, starting at LSU, then going to East Mississippi Jr. College (where he won the Jr. college national championship) then back to the SEC at Missouri before transferring to Nicholls State and one last transfer to UIW this season.
I would need a legal degree and the NCAA’s 100,000-page manual to explain his eligibility.
While McNeese has struggled to pass for 100 yards per game with sophomore quarterback Knox Kadum, Incarnate Word’s Scott is near the Top 2 in the country in total offense and passing yards per game.
In the 48 to 20 romp over the Cowboys, Scott threw for 334 yards and accounted for all of UIW’s seven touchdowns. The Cards maintained their lofty status as one of the highest scoring teams in the FCS.
McNeese does outrank UIW in the categories of character, sportsmanship and playing with class.
Twice over the past three seasons, when the Cardinals had the game won by double digit margins, they bypassed the acceptable victory formation to take a knee and run out the clock. Instead, the offense tacked on a meaningless touchdown pass to rub the Cowboys’ noses in the lopsided score.
Saturday’s runup was particularly egregious because they were up by 21 points and inside the McNeese 35 yardline with under 2 minutes to play. Scott had already had his way with the Cowboys’ struggling secondary. But the call either came in from the sideline or from the athletic director’s stadium booth to score again and make yet another classless point.
Incarnate Word, a Catholic institution of higher learning since 1881, should be ashamed!
Clearly the UIW administration and athletic director Richard Duran has an ongoing beef with McNeese President Burckel and A.D. Schroyer over the whole Western Athletic Conference fiasco and the deal McNeese struck with the Southland to host conference championships as an inducement for the Cowboys to remain in the SLC.
What else can it be?
I would hate to think UIW’s Kinne, Duran, university leadership, their coaching staff and players are classless and mean-spirited.
Back to the subject at hand — it may be unfair to compare the experience and elite skills of Scott with the inexperience and still growing Kadum or the situation Kinne inherited to the holy mess Goff took over at McNeese.
But when you do compare, it’s only fair to go back to 2018 and see where UIW made the better decisions and laid a stronger foundation that has paid huge dividends, while McNeese has struggled to find coins in the couch.
I’ll admit it — I didn’t like the idea of the Southland Conference adding two little-known faith-based schools to its ranks back in 2014, when then league commissioner Tom Burnett brought in Incarnate Word and Houston Baptist.
I was overly snobbish toward the two little known, once Division II programs. But I just figured the SLC was panicky and rushed to add anyone willing to come aboard when they could have waited for a bit bigger fish.
Part of the conference’s thinking back then was expansion into major metros like Houston and San Antonio, even though no one there knew or cared about the Cardinals and Huskies. That didn’t matter to the Southland, because they thought being a guppy in the vast ocean of those Texas markets was better than anything or anybody else out there in the FCS.
UIW’s growth and resiliency proved me wrong, with two SLC titles in the last four years, including last season’s 10-3 record before losing to Sam Houston State in the second round of the playoffs.
For the sake of comparisons again, McNeese hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2015, and has not won a postseason game since 2002.
I don’t dredge up history and past failures to put salt on the Cowboys’ wounds. But a look at past performance does clearly explain how past mistakes and poor decisions can set a program back for years.
The silver lining in this history lesson is that McNeese has finally looked inward and recognized the origins of their problems, including the erosion of its once proud and strong culture, personnel decisions on various levels, poor player and talent development and loss of its recruiting mojo.
It opened the door for Sam Houston State to use that coach and quarterback formula to blow pass McNeese to win the FCS National Championship in 2020 before moving up to FBS as a member of Conference USA.
Incarnate Word, Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls have also caught up with and exceeded McNeese with playoff appearances and postseason wins over the past five years.
After a long look in the mirror, McNeese president Dr. Daryl Burckel and athletic director Heath Schroyer took a deep breath and used a more methodical approach to find new football coach Gary Goff at Division II Valdosta State.
Goff checked off some big boxes.
Successful track record.
Knows how to rebuild a program from ground level.
Commitment to the program.
Don’t overlook that last box. McNeese could ill afford another coaching hire who was here as a short stopover till his next job offer.
So far, Goff’s 1-4 start has seen his Air Raid offense grounded and his defense giving up an average of 37 points per game.
That’s not the kind of start Goff and the Cowboys faithful were hoping for. But it’s a crawl-before-you-run type of scenario.
Incarnate Word pulled some aces out of the deck with coaches Morris and Kinne and quarterbacks Ward and Scott.
The Cowboys have shuffled their deck a few times, as we know, with little to show for it. The hope is that in time they will come up with a winning hand that will turn their football fortunes around.
Catch Rick Sarro’s commentary and latest opinions on Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and again Saturday at 11 pm and Sunday at 10 pm. Follow Rick on Twitter @ricksarro.
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