Location: Lake Charles, Louisiana
Coach: Matt Viator (62-27, ninth season)
Record: 0-0 (0-0 Southland)
Ranking: No. 6 (FCS)
Series with Nebraska: Nebraska leads 1-0
Last game: lost to Jacksonville State, 31-10, on Dec. 7
A threat from the FCS
There are FCS teams, and then there are those FCS teams, the ones that can pose a threat to the FBS giants. Let’s classify McNeese State as the latter. Idaho State, this is not. McNeese State has defeated an FBS team each of the last two seasons — 27-21 at Middle Tennessee State in 2012, and last season’s surprising 53-21 victory at South Florida, which marked the widest margin of victory ever by an FCS team against an FBS team. And three of the Cowboys’ last six losses to FBS teams were by 10 points or fewer. Nebraska, meanwhile, is 10-0 since 1992 against FCS competition, having outscored those foes by an average of 49-10. The Huskers don't have another FCS foe on future schedules, and likely won't add one.
McNeese State has been practicing since Aug. 9 and finally begins its season Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Despite being idle last weekend, the Cowboys moved up to No. 6 in the FCS poll. They were 10-3 last season and went to the FCS playoffs for a Southland Conference-record 15th time, where they lost in the first round to Jacksonville State. Coach Matt Viator took over for McNeese State after the fifth game of the 2006 season, and under him, the Cowboys are 4-3 in season openers, including 2-2 against FBS teams. As for Nebraska? “This is the best team we’ve played in a while,” Viator said.
The Cowboys have five FBS transfers on the two-deep roster — junior quarterback Daniel Sams (Kansas State), junior running back Derrick Milton (Mississippi State), junior running back Nate Holmes (Arkansas), freshman cornerback Jermaine Antoine (TCU) and freshman kicker Alex Kjellsten (LSU). Two true freshmen, left tackle Kyle Zenon and right guard Nick Fontenot, are on the offensive two-deep, with three true freshmen, linebacker Ashari Goins, safety Dominique Hill and safety Andre Fuller, on the defensive two-deep.
Cowboys on offense
Junior Tyler Bolfing has edged Kansas State transfer Daniel Sams for the starting quarterback job, although Sams is expected to play against Nebraska. In fact, there’s a good possibility McNeese State will play four different quarterbacks, with junior Will Brisco, who’s been oft-injured in his career, and redshirt freshman Grant Ashcraft also in line to see playing time.
Bolfing and Sams were the front-runners, though, in a battle to replace 3½-year starter Cody Stroud. Bolfing appeared in 10 games last season, going 12-of-22 through the air for 165 yards. Sams is the most athletic of the group and is a rushing threat, but has struggled as a passer and was limited in the spring and summer because of an injury.
McNeese State loses running back Marcus Wiltz, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, but has a bevy of players in line to replace him, including a couple of Southeastern Conference transfers. Derrick Milton (Mississippi State) and Nate Holmes (Arkansas) arrived in the spring, giving them time to learn the Cowboys’ system. Returning are Kelvin Bennett (774 rushing yards) and Dylan Long (335 yards.)
McNeese State returns a veteran offensive line, led by offensive tackle Antoine Everett, who’s garnering preseason All-America attention. The Cowboys’ top returning receiver is senior Ernest Celestie (31 catches, 565 yards), but look for redshirt freshman receiver Kent Shelby to make an immediate impact.
The Cowboys averaged 40.0 points a game last season, and scored more than 50 points a school-record five times.
Offensive averages / national rank (2013, FCS)
40.0 / 6
450.9 / 17
208.9 / 24
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242.0 / 31
Cowboys on defense
McNeese State didn’t put up the most impressive defensive numbers last season. The Cowboys allowed 416 yards per game and ranked 97th among FCS schools in defending the pass, allowing 242.9 yards per game. They must replace three of their top five tacklers.
That said, the Cowboys have some talent returning on defense, including tackle Kevin Dorn and end Everett Ellefsen. Each had five sacks last season, and Ellefsen, a first-team Southland Conference pick, is closing in on the school’s top-10 chart for career sacks.
Senior free safety Aaron Sam led McNeese State with 84 tackles last season. He’s a former cornerback who’s played both safety positions. Junior cornerback Gabe Hamner started 13 games as a sophomore, getting two interceptions along with a team-best 10 pass breakups. And linebacker Bo Brown had a team-best 12 tackles for loss.
There’s also inexperience, with three true freshmen on the defensive two-deep. That includes Dominque Hill, who will start alongside Sam at strong safety.
Defensive averages / national rank (2013, FCS)
28.5 / 75
416.1 / 83
173.2 / 68
242.9 / 97
Cowboys on special teams
Jean Breaux returns as the Cowboys’ punter and also served as a backup place-kicker last season. Breaux averaged 39.5 yards per punt, with five kicks of 50 yards or more, and 15 downed inside the 20-yard line. Either Breaux or Alex Kjellsten, who transferred after redshirting his freshman season at LSU, will handle place-kicking duties.
Wide receiver Khalil Thomas had a 24.6-yard average on kickoff returns last season, which included a 94-yard return for a touchdown.
Players to watch
Daniel Sams, QB, jr., 6-2, 207 pounds
The Kansas State transfer didn’t win the starting quarterback job like some expected, but he will play Saturday. When he’s in the game, he’s likely to run. He rushed for 807 yards and a team-best 11 touchdowns last season with the Wildcats.
Antoine Everett, LT, sr., 6-3, 325 pounds
Several NFL scouts have attended McNeese State’s fall camp to get a look at Everett, a starter in all 13 games last season. He’s garnering preseason All-America attention and is part of an experienced, veteran offensive line.
Aaron Sam, S, sr., 5-9, 182 pounds
Sam led the Cowboys last season with 84 tackles, and was second on the team with 8½ tackles for loss. He had three games of 10 tackles or more. Sam also was the victim of a targeting penalty that resulted in him missing one game last season.