Previously unbeaten McNeese State took a 41-6 thumping at Northern Iowa. Today, the Cowboys take on the University of Central Arkansas for their Southland Conference opener in the Red Beans and Rice Bowl game at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
Which is the biggest challenge: A. Motivating a team after a thorough defeat or B. Preparing for a UCA team that is coming off an open date?
“A and B,” said McNeese State coach Matt Viator, whose team has lost to the Bears four of the last five years. “I felt we got beat in every phase against Northern Iowa. There was no doubt who was the better team. But not only are we playing a team that had a week off but it is an extremely talented Central Arkansas team. The things they do, they do extremely well. What you get, you earn.”
It’s more than a scrap for a traveling trophy. It’s a confrontation of two highly successful programs that are usually in the thick of the SLC race.
“We always get excited to play somebody with the tradition and reputation of McNeese State.” said UCA coach Clint Conque. “Two of my former assistants (Slade Nagle and Chris Hampton) are assistants there. I worked three years as an assistant there and my second son was born there. My sister lives in Lake Charles and she even cuts Matt Viator’s hair.
“Most years, the conference championship goes through Lake Charles.”
Four of the last five games have been decided by four points of fewer, including last year when the Bears came from nine points down twice to win, 27-26, on a 47-yard field goal by Eddie Carmara with 2:10 left.
“Most games have been 60-minute games and one play can make a difference in any game.” Conque said. “We’ve been fortunate the last three years that we have made one more play than they did. In 2009, they made that one play and we didn’t. And they hvae been strange games and we have had to make some extraordinary plays to win.”
“To their credit, they’ve made the plays,” Viator said. “Both teams usually play extremely hard and the games are extremely close. UCA has made the plays at the right time.”
Since the Bears have entered the conference, they are 4-2 against McNeese, the only team in the league to have a winning record against the Cowboys, which has turned the short series into a major rivalry.
“Games become a rivalry when you beat them and you beat them on their home field,” Conque said.
One of the things the Bears worked on during the open week was a self-study of what can be tweaked about the offense, particularly to revive a running game that is averaging only 83.2 yards per game.
“In order to win a championship, we’ve got to present a creditable running game,” Conque said. “McNeese is a good-looking football team. They have a fifth-year senior quarterback (Cody Stroud) and they have a home-run hitting backs.”
It’s a contrast in offensive approaches.
“Our offense flows though the eyes of the quarterback; theirs flows through the eyes of the tailback,” Conque said. “Both have been successful.”