HAMMOND – McNeese went toe-to-toe with 23rd-ranked Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday night, and was driving for the possible winning touchdown with under three minutes to play before turning the ball over at the 4-yard line. The Lions went on to run out the rest of the clock to escape with a 25-20 Southland Conference victory.
Trailing 25-20 following a 33-yard field goal by SLU’s Mateo Rengifo with 9:19 to play, the Cowboys (1-2, 0-2) began their drive for the win at its own 25-yard line.
J’Cobi Skinner and Cody Orgeron used their legs to get the ball near midfield, and when facing a 3rd-and-10, Orgeron connected with Josh Matthews on a 10-yard strike to keep the drive alive.
A couple of more runs by Orgeron was followed by a 14-yard blast by AJ Carter to get the ball to the Lion 6 as the clocked ticked to under four minutes. Orgeron would then get sacked to back the ball up to the 11 and on the next play facing 3rd and goal, Orgeron took off to the sideline where he was met by a couple of Lion defenders, popping the ball loose at the 4-yard line and recovered by SLU.
“We went toe-to-toe with them,” said head coach Frank Wilson. “This team took a step forward with our development tonight. We were going in for the win but unfortunately the contact caused a fumble and they recovered.
“From an offensive standpoint, we cannot turn the ball over. We’ve have to play without turnovers, and we have up until tonight.”
Things started fast for the Cowboys on the opening kick when Carter took the kickoff from the 3-yard line and returned it 62 yards to the Lions 35. A 15-yard personal foul penalty for a face mask on the tackle was tacked on to give McNeese its opening drive start at the SLU 20.
The Cowboys were unable to get in the endzone and settled for a 21-yard Jacob Abel field goal to put McNeese up 3-0 early.
“I thought our team came out and started fast and continued to stay at that pace,” said Wilson. “That kickoff gave us some momentum to start the game but we have to get the ball in the endzone.”
The Lions (1-1, 1-1) tied the game on a 27-yard Rengifo field goal with 3:51 to play in the first quarter then took a 6-3 lead following a made 29-yard field goal with 9:13 to go in the second quarter.
The Cowboys’ offense put together a 9-play scoring drive that ended with a 45-yard Abel field goal to tie things up 6-6 with 5:58 to go in the first half. SLU later got the ball back with right at two minute to play and scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass by Kelley to Turner with no time on the clock. The point after kick was blocked by the Cowboys’ Leon Young as the Lions took a 12-6 lead into the half.
The lead grew to 19-6 after SLU scored on its opening possession in the third quarter then was driving to widen the gap when CJ Semien strip-sacked Kelley and Accord Green pounced on the fumble to give the Cowboys the ball at their own 39.
The offense went to work, started by a 9-yard run by Carter then later completions of 14 and 11 yards by Orgeron to Dontay Hargrove and Trevor Begue to get the ball to the SLU 35. Carter against advanced the ball with rushes of 9 and 14 yards, then facing a 1st and goal at the 9, Williams took the handoff and barreled his way in for the score as the Cowboys cut the deficit to 19-13 with 5:18 to play in the quarter.
“I thought we did a great job of sustaining drives tonight,” said Wilson. “Our offensive line played their hearts out and played extremely well.”
Another Rengifo field goal increased the lead to 22-13 with 1:55 to play in the third quarter but McNeese answered with an 8-play drive that covered 67 yards and ended with a 2-yard Carter touchdown run to cut the lead down to 22-20 with 14:10 remaining.
That’s when the coaching staff reached into its bag of surprises when on the ensuing kickoff, Bailey Raborn pooched an onside kick that was caught in midair by Andre Sam at the Cowboys’ 48-yard line.
“It was a risk but we took a shot at it,” said Wilson. “(Special teams coordinator) Gary Hyman and our special teams saw something and they made the call and it happened at the right time.”
The Cowboys were driving into Lion territory after Williams picked up 9 yards to get to the Lion 36. On the next play, Orgeron was intercepted for the second time when his pass was picked off at the Lions 11.
McNeese’s defense held and force SLU to punt it away, but on the ensuing possession, Williams fumbled the ball at the SLU 36 after getting hit perfectly to create the turnover.
The defense put up another strong stand and forced the Lions to kick a field goal to take a 25-20 lead after advancing the ball to the McNeese 16.
McNeese got the ball back with 9:19 to play and drove down to the Lion 6 before a sack and turnover ended its chances.
“There wasn’t a person on the sideline that didn’t think we weren’t going to get the victory,” said Wilson. “I’m proud of how we fought. This program is under construction to get us to play our better ball at a later date. We improved this week as compared to a week ago, against a more talented team this week.”
The Cowboys finished with 331 total offensive yards on the night – 166 rushing and 165 passing while SLU had 191 rushing and 301 passing for 492 total.
Carter led the Cowboys with 57 yards on the ground followed by Orgeron with 47. Orgeron completed 13 of 20 passes for 165 yards with his top target being Matthews who caught five passes for 43 yards.
The Cowboys will return home next Saturday when they host Lamar at noon in Cowboy Stadium.