Lincoln, NE (SportsNetwork.com) - The McNeese State Cowboys, an FCS program from the Southland Conference, have quite the task ahead of them for their first contest of the 2014 campaign, as they travel to Lincoln to take on the 19th-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium Saturday.
These two programs have clashed once before in their football histories, which occurred during the 2002 season. The Huskers won the contest, 38-14, playing on their home turf.
Nebraska started the year ranked No. 22 in the country, and decimated the Florida Atlantic Owls, 55-7, in the opening week of the season. The Huskers, who compete in the Big Ten Conference, are one of five teams in the Big Ten's West Division to record a win in Week 1. All seven Big Ten teams in the East Division picked up a win last weekend.
McNeese State was one of the better FCS teams in 2013, as the Cowboys finished the season ranked No. 11 in the country with a 10-3 overall record, including a 6-1 mark in the Southland Conference. The Cowboys made the FCS playoffs, but were eliminated in the second round by Jacksonville State, 31-10, to end the season.
The Cowboys, who were one of the more talented offensive units on the FCS level in 2013, lost a lot of production in the offseason. It starts at the top, having graduated quarterback Cody Stroud who tossed 28 touchdown passes and just shy of 3,000 yards last year. Fortunately for the Cowboys, Kansas State transfer Daniel Sams is in line to see plenty of playing time, and he should be able to effectively run McNeese State's offense.
The loss of running back Marcus Wiltz hurts as well, since Wiltz was a valuable part of the offense for the past few seasons. He scampered for 1,287 yards in 2013 with 11 touchdowns, and added a pair of receiving scores as well to his stat line. But like the quarterback position, several transfers will likely vie for playing time for the Cowboys this year in former Arkansas back Nate Holmes and ex-Mississippi State rusher Derrick Milton. Of course junior Kelvin Bennett (108 carries, 774 yards, four touchdowns) could be the go-to guy after seeing plenty of time last season with the Cowboys.
Diontae Spencer, who was an all-purpose threat in both the pass catching game as well as punt and kickoff return game, is no longer with the program after his graduation, so look for receivers Ernest Celestie (31 receptions, 565 yards, five touchdowns) and Wes Briscoe to carry more of a load this season. They'll have quite the defense with which to contend this Saturday, albeit a Huskers D likely without defensive end Randy Gregory.
"It's exciting to get going this week," said McNeese State coach Matt Viator. "We're looking forward to a good week of practice then flying out to go to Nebraska on Friday. It's a great opportunity for our program."
Despite the loss of huge names on offense for McNeese State, the defense may be the biggest question, especially since it has to handle an AP Top-25 squad. Led by defensive end Everett Ellefsen (37 tackles, seven tackles for loss, five sacks), the Cowboys' linemen will have to contend with star running back Ameer Abdullah Saturday.
Ellefsen, a senior, leads an experienced defensive line made up of players like Kevin Dorn (45 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, three sacks), Sean Brown and junior transfer Brian Hine. At linebacker, Bo Brown (63 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, five quarterback hurries) and Deonte Thompson (28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups) are the staples.
In the secondary, safety Aaron Sam is the leader after registering 82 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and seven pass breakups in 2013. He was part of a unit that did allow at least 38 points in five games, however, so the Cowboys will have to work on cutting down red-zone opportunities.
There was no shortage of offense or defense for Nebraska in the team's season- opening win last weekend. The Cornhuskers, who are without Taylor Martinez for the first time in years after his graduation, were just fine handing the reins over to Tony Armstrong Jr., who completed 15-of-29 passing for 271 yards and two touchdowns. As a unit, the Huskers accumulated 286 passing yards and 784 total yards of offense, that was mostly thanks to the team's ground attack.
Nebraska registered 498 net rushing yards against the Conference USA Owls - 232 of which came from Abdullah on 21 carries. The Cornhuskers also scored five times on the ground - one from Abdullah, two from Terrell Newby and one each from Armstrong Jr. and Imani Cross. Between Cross and Abdullah, both players averaged at least 10.7 yards per carry.
Defensively, the injury to Gregory isn't all that serious, according to coach Bo Pelini, who said it was basically an old one to his knee that just flared back up.
"It was something he did playing basketball years ago and it flared up on him," Pelini said. "The MRI clearly showed that it was an old injury. It was a non-contact thing. Like I said, it was just something when you're out there playing, you don't know what's going to flare something up like that. The doctors could see from the MRI that it was very old."
He added that Gregory could probably go against McNeese State if needed, though he'll more than likely sit out the contest. Gregory was not part of the defensive unit that held FAU to just seven points in last week's contest, and 200 total offensive yards.
Linebacker Zaire Anderson registered a team-high seven tackles against FAU, with one tackle for loss. He and fellow playmakers David Santos (six tackles, one tackle for loss), Trevor Roach and Greg McMullen (four tackles, two tackles for loss, .5 sacks) will have to watch a multi-dimensional McNeese State rushing attack. In the secondary, Jonathan Rose, Nathan Gerry and Byerson Cockrell will have their eyes planted on taking away options with whom Sams will try to connect.