Truth be told, I thought the McNeese Cowboys might be a 7-4, or at least a 6-5, team this season, given the infusion of talent and how the team finished the 2022 season on that long ago three-game winning streak.
I never thought that 24-20 win over Lamar last Nov. 19 would be the only victory this football program would experience for 11 months. But that’s the reality the Cowboys are living right now.
No team in McNeese’s history has started the season 0-7. That dubious honor belongs to this batch of Cowboys.
I guess I bought into the optimism of head coach Gary Goff, going back to last spring and through fall training camp.
I wasn’t the only one. McNeese was voted the third best team in the Southland Conference in the preseason poll, behind Southeastern La. and Incarnate Word.
How do you think those Lions in Hammond are feeling now, having been picked to finish first and sitting tied with McNeese in last place in the league?
Those good vibes Goff was selling were well placed back in August. He felt he upgraded the most important position with two experienced junior college or Division II quarterbacks and added a slew of receivers. The inexperienced secondary was going to be rescued with some cornerbacks and safeties who had more snaps under their belts.
The offensive and defensive lines were beefed up with transfers and a few returners who spent beneficial time in the weight room over the off-season. The running back room had star D’angelo Durham back from a near career-ending injury sitting next to a couple of JuCo runners in Cam Thomas and Coleby Hamm, along with junior Ivory Roberts, who flashed in August camp.
On paper, this McNeese roster appeared to be significantly improved in all position groups. The present day reality is none of the above got better. In fact, there may have been some regression from the squad that finished 4-7 and 2-4 in the SLC last season.
Reserve quarterback Tre Simmons decided to protect his redshirt season and entered the transfer portal. Three of the receivers mentioned earlier left the team or were ushered out the door by Goff. Running back Roberts is no longer with the program and several other transfers have gone.
Goff stuck by his mantra of “the standards are the standards,” and preached about finding players who really want to be here, think team first and show a desire to play hard despite the record losses to start the season.
It’s not all doom and gloom.
Linebacker Micah Davey has had an impressive season, leading the defense in tackles, averaging double digit stops per game and garnering some national FCS attention.
And the kicking game duo of PK Garrison Smith and punter Callum Eddings has had a solid season.
Walk-on quarterback Ryan Roberts has replaced Nate Glantz at quarterback; he staked the Cowboys to a 24-7 half time lead over UIW.
Another unknown walk-on freshman, running back Joshon Barbie, looking like an extra light version of Alvin Kamara, dashed and darted for a nifty 117 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown.
Unfortunately, Goff could only squeeze that juice in the first half. The only things remaining in the second half were pits and seeds.
I’m not going to bore you with a spreadsheet of stats telling you what you already know. A lousy, underachieving McNeese team is near the bottom half of nearly every statistical category kept by the conference. And if my eyes didn’t fail me, the Southland lists 126 different stats.
The only ones I found in which McNeese is the best were net yards per rush for Durham and net yards per punt. But that could have been after the numbers from the Incarnate Word game were tallied.
And speaking of that, the Cowboys did fall to the Cardinals again this time, 35-24. UIW scorched McNeese with 28 unanswered points in the second half after surprisingly finding themselves in that 17-point halftime hole at the Hole.
Despite having a first-year head coach in Clint Killough, UIW has been ranked in the Top 10 of the FCS polls all season and should stay at No. 5 after the new rankings come out.
This is the same Incarnate Word that McNeese fans, some Southland members and numerous media types, me included, scoffed at when UIW was added to the conference some 9 years ago. Since 2018, this Big Red Machine has dominated the Cowboys, winning five of their last six meetings, with most wins by lopsided scores.
How has Killough succeeded in his first year as coach while Goff has struggled in two years?
It’s pretty simple in my mind. Killough inherited a very good team that advanced to last year’s FCS semifinals, and he got the quarterback position right.
When you get the right QB under center, then odds are the offense will be right. And in today’s offensive-led college game, you have to have the offense right. UIW also got the receivers right, with five guys averaging 30 or more yards per game led by All SLC star Brandon Porter.
Oh, that right quarterback for UIW is Zach Calzada, who transferred in from Texas A&M, and before that spent some time with Auburn. He got Power 5 cred playing at the FCS level and leads the league in pretty much every passing stats column you can find.
Ironically, Calzada was sidelined against McNeese, nursing a shoulder injury suffered in an earlier game. Killough had the luxury of calling on a smooth looking freshman transfer quarterback in Richard Torres, who orchestrated that 28-point rally to beat the Cowboys. With Torres at the helm and a stop-the-run defensive mindset, UIW outgained McNeese 330 yards to 80 in the second half alone.
UIW has had a habit of having talented quarterbacks on their roster. It started with 2018 SLC Freshman of the Year Jon Copeland. Then came Cam Ward a few years later. He is now one of the country’s best quarterbacks at Washington State.
The Cardinals then signed collegiate journeyman and former LSU, Missouri and Nicholls State quarterback Lindsey Scott for his last season. He promptly got them into the FCS final four in 2022.
Calzada is the latest Cardinal QB who will lead UIW back to the FCS playoffs.
Why hasn’t McNeese lured a Ward, Scott, Calzada or former Walter Payton Award winner Cole Kelley (Southeastern La.) to play QB for the Cowboys?
It’s a valid question. It comes down to winning.
Clearly McNeese has better facilities than Incarnate Word, which has a field house and stadium that is outclassed by most of the larger high schools in football-crazed Texas. Southeastern’s athletic upgrades rival McNeese’s. But I would still put Cowboy Stadium above Strawberry Stadium on sheer name alone among other things.
You can talk about nice facilities, amenities and perks all day, but right now today’s star players want NIL money, a starting position and a winning program.
Simply put, UIW and Southeastern Louisiana have won more over the past five years while McNeese has not.
On the recruiting trail, McNeese coaches can tout a league-leading 14 Southland Conference titles and two trips to the FCS National Championship game. But it’s a “what have you done now” society, and today’s instant gratification, social media-immersed players can’t relate to the past.
Competing SLC and FCS programs will tell prospective players eyeing McNeese that the Cowboys haven’t won the conference title since 2015, which was the year of the Pokes’ last playoff appearance. If those same players are even slightly interested in history, they are reminded McNeese hasn’t won an FCS playoff since 2002. And to put more shade on the Pokes, four straight losing seasons only make the recruiting and selling of McNeese that much harder.
If Cole Kelley, Lindsey Scott or even former Houston Baptist QB Bailey Zappe wore the blue and gold, I guarantee the Cowboys would have playoff wins and maybe another national championship game appearance in the record books to brag about.
A million-dollar locker room, upgrades to the weight room and a new $31-million dollar stadium press box with luxury suites are needed and great to show off. But you’ve heard it before … winning cures all ills.
The popular sentiment is McNeese’s best shot at victory and avoiding an 0-11 season will be against another winless team in Northwestern State for Homecoming on Oct. 28.
Until Goff and his staff figures out the winning equation and gets better Jimmies and Johnnies on the roster, the cycle of losing will continue.
Catch Rick Sarro’s commentary and latest opinions on Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tueday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and again Saturday at 11 pm and Sunday at 10 pm. Follow Rick on Twitter @ricksarro.