Four weeks remain in the 2014 football regular season and the logjam at the top of the Southland Conference standings is a perfect indication of how competitive the league is this year.
Some things could be made clearer this week when the eighth-ranked McNeese Cowboys visit Northwestern State at 6 p.m in Turpin Stadium. The game can be heard live on the McNeese Radio Network and Gator 99.5 FM, the flagship station for McNeese athletics.
A win by McNeese (5-2, 3-1 SLC) will keep the Cowboys in at least a tie for the top spot where five teams are settled heading into the weekend, but the Demons (4-4, 2-2) are facing a must-win situation should they want to remain in the title hunt. But despite the dominance the Cowboys have had over NSU (winners of nine straight), McNeese head coach Matt Viator knows his team will have to bring its A game on Saturday.
"I believe without a doubt this is probably their best team since 2008," said Viator of the Demons. "They've got a really good quarterback who can make things happen."
The Demons defeated Louisiana Tech earlier in the year and just two weeks ago, beat Sam Houston State.
However, the team is coming off its biggest FCS loss of the season after a 58-35 setback at Central Arkansas last week. In that game, NSU played without its two best defensive linemen and were minus several key players.
The injury situation has hit the Cowboys as of late as well. Five starters did not play at Incarnate Word but two of those, free safety Aaron Sam and buck safety Dominique Hill are expected to return to action. Running back Kelvin Bennett is also expected to play and wide receiver Ernest Celestie is questionable.
"The last couple weeks we're playing guys that aren't able to practice, and when you do that you're kind of just treading water," said Viator. "So hopefully by holding guys out we'll be able to get them on the practice field and have some meaningful practice." For the most part, the Cowboys appear somewhat healthy heading into Saturday's showdown.
McNeese will enter the game ranked No. 1 in the conference in rushing offense (256.9 ypg), rushing defense (119.9 ypg), scoring defense (19.4 ppg), total defense (309.6 ygp), as well as sacks against, opponent first downs, opponent third down conversions, pass defense efficiency, and time of possession.
The Cowboys are second in scoring offense (38.9 ppg) and pass defense (189.7 ypg). Quarterback Daniel Sams is second in the league in rushing with 87.6 yards per game and is first in the SLC and third in the FCS with 7.5 yards per carry. True freshman Ryan Ross continues to build steam in the backfield and is third on the team with 324 yards and tied for the team lead with six touchdowns. Bennett has rushed for 315 yards and two scores while Dylan Long has 135 yards and six tds.
Derrick Milton, who is second on the team with 383 yards rushing with six touchdowns, will likely miss the game due to an injury he suffered at UIW. Brent Spikes, who tied a school record with three interceptions at UIW last week in addition to setting new school and conference records with 148 interception return yards, leads the team and is ranked seventh in the FCS with four pass interceptions (0.6 p/g).
The defense is averaging 2.7 sacks per game (22nd in the FCS) and has scored four touchdowns on the season. NSU ranks sixth in the SLC in scoring offense (31.4 ppg), eighth in scoring defense (35.6 ppg), seventh in rushing offense (174.6 ypg), fifth in passing offense (228.2 ypg), eighth in total offense (402.9 ypg), ninth in rushing defense (207.4 ypg), sixth in passing defense (212.6 ypg), and seventh in total defense (420.0 ypg). Quarterback Zach Adkins has thrown for 1,782 yards on 170 of 260 passing and has 19 touchdown passes with 12 interceptions. Ed Eagan is his primary target with 40 catches on the season with 450 yards and five scores.