LAKE CHARLES, La. (KPLC) - The Sterlin Gilbert era of McNeese football got off to an exciting start when on Saturday night, McNeese downed Southern 34-28 in front of a Cowboy Stadium record crowd of 20,437.
The win was the first for Gilbert in his first season as a head coach as the Cowboys (1-0) took advantage of five Southern (0-1) turnovers by scoring 24 points off those miscues and built a comfortable 34-14 fourth quarter lead before the Jaguars rallied late to close the gap.
“This was an exciting win for our program,” said Gilbert. “We’ll go back to work tomorrow (Sunday) and continue to get better.”
The Cowboys tallied 303 offensive yards and out-gained the Jaguars 154-103 on the ground.
Four rushers carried the ball at least 11 times as newcomer Elijah Mack led the way with 45 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown.
Through the air, quarterback Cody Orgeron was efficient by completing 15 of 22 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns. He added 33 yards rushing for 180 total offensive yards on the night.
McNeese did not turn the ball over in the game.
Defensively, Andre Sam led the Cowboys with eight tackles, four of those solos. Chris Livings added to his career sack total with one on the night, giving him 21.5 in his career and now just 9.5 away from the school career record. Calum Foster scooped up two of the five fumble recoveries.
The Cowboys' defense finished the night with three sacks and six tackles for a loss to go along with the forced turnovers.
McNeese got on the board first when J’Cobi Skinner plunged in from 1-yard out with 6:11 to play in the first quarter to make it 7-0.
Southern answered with a 7-play, 75-yard drive that ended when Ladarius Skelton connected with Timothy Bedford for a 33-yard strike with 3:22 to play in the quarter.
The Jaguars went up 14-7 early in the second quarter on a 43-yard touchdown pass by Skelton to Hunter Register but the Cowboys closed out the first half with 10 straight points behind a 37-yard Noah Anderson field goal and a perfect 12-yard connection between Orgeron and Trevor Begue to give McNeese a 17-14 halftime lead.
That Orgeron to Begue connection repeated itself with 10:16 to play in the third quarter on a 24-yard strike, one that was set up by the Cowboys’ third fumble recovery of the game as McNeese built a 24-14 lead.
The lead grew to 34-14 following another Anderson field goal, this time from 29 yards out, and a 3-yard Elijah Mack touchdown run with 5:25 to play.
Southern rallied back by taking advantage of McNeese penalties to keep drives alive and with 3:41 to play, Register scored on a 17-yard pass from backup quarterback Glendon McDaniel on a play that appeared to show Register out of bounds with his first foot down. But after a referee meeting, the touchdown was signaled and the lead cut to 34-21.
The Jaguars got in the endzone one more time with 32 seconds to play on a 1-yard score by McDaniel while the ensuing onside kick sailed out of bounds and the Cowboys were able to run the clock out for the win.
A total of 10 Cowboys got their first career starts – WR Davion Curtis, C Calvin Barkat, OL Caleb Gary, OL Demarcus Thomas, LB Kordell Williams, LB Kody Fulp, LB Carlos Scott, S Andre Sam, PK Noah Anderson, and P Bailey Raborn.
Trevor Begue recorded his first career multi-TD game.
McNeese improves to 13-0 all-time vs. the SWAC and 2-0 against Southern.
The Cowboys have now won 15 straight home openers and eight straight games when opening up the season at home.
The crowd of 20,437 broke the previous record of 20,300 that was set when McNeese hosted Grambling in 2002, also on Aug. 31. Accurate attendance numbers began in the early 90s. Prior to that, all attendance figures were estimates.