In their 43-17 victory on Louis Bonnette Field at Cowboy Stadium, the No. 9-ranked Cowboys (9-2 overall, 5-1 in the Southland Conference) sprung to life after falling behind the Demons (5-6, 2-4) 10-7 midway through the second period.
McNeese’s first four series ended with a fumble, a failed fourth-down try, a punt and another fruitless fourth down conversion attempt.
Only a blocked punt, returned for a touchdown, averted a two-score deficit to the upstart visitors – and it could have been bigger, lamented Demons’ first-year Jay Thomas.
“Against a team this explosive, this good, you’d better make the most of your opportunities and we weren’t able to do that,” he said. “We left some points out there and didn’t create too tall a hill for them to climb. They started pounding away at us and we weren’t able to make the stops we needed. That’s what they’ve done in all their wins.”
McNeese, the nation’s No. 5 scoring offense, hit its average (42.5 per game) precisely by overpowering NSU for 285 yards rushing on 52 carries
The Cowboys ground out drives of 11, 16 and 12 plays as they scored on five consecutive possessions going into, and coming out of, halftime while establishing command after the rocky start, which was nothing new - McNeese's opponents have scored first in all but one of their games.
Marcus Wiltz ran for 135 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown, while Kelvin Bennett added 115 yards for McNeese.
Senior quarterback Cody Stroud threw TD passes of 2 and 4 yards in an efficient 195-yard outing, going 19 of 30 without an interception while being victimized by a few drops from his receivers.
The Cowboys finally took control with an 11-play, 80-yard drive against the clock ending the first half.
With 4.8 seconds to go, Stroud looped a perfectly-thrown pass to David Bush on a flag route in the right corner of the end zone.
Two officials briefly huddled before ruling Bush did get a foot in bounds after catching the 4-yard throw that lifted McNeese ahead 21-10 at halftime.
It was the second impressive drive in the last 8:27 of the second quarter by the Cowboys. After a 19-yard Chris Moore field goal gave NSU its second lead at 10-7, McNeese moved 65 yards in five snaps and got a 2-yard bootleg pass from Stroud to tight end Nic Jacobs to go ahead 14-10 with 6:14 left before halftime.
The Demons failed to fully convert a golden opportunity when settling for Moore’s three-pointer.
A high punt snap was fumbled and NSU’s Keland Johnson ran down Jean Breaux at the Cowboys’ 7, giving the Demons first-and-goal.
Two runs went nowhere, and a third down throw underneath across the middle to Louis Hollier gained only four yards, forcing the field goal try.
NSU converted an early fumble recovery into a quick lead. Damon Medcafe forced the fumble that Fred Thomas pounced on at the Cowboys’ 45, and three plays later, Zack Adkins found a wide-open Hollier for a 34-yard scoring strike and a 7-0 advantage 4:06 into the contest.
McNeese tied it on a 20-yard blocked punt return by Jereon McGilvery early in the second quarter.
McNeese took the second half kickoff and methodically pounded downfield, going 83 yards in 16 plays and chewing up the first 8:28 of the third period to open a 28-10 lead at the 6:32 mark on a 1-yard Dylan Long plunge.
The margin opened to 43-10 midway through the fourth quarter, but Adkins found Ed Eagan from 25 yards away on a sensational one-handed grab as a McNeese defender tugged his other arm with 4:35 left.
That helped Adkins tie the Demons’ single-season pass yardage record. He threw for 242 yards, hitting 19 of 33 without a pickoff, and the TDs to Hollier and Eagan.
His 11-game season total matches the 2,393 yards by Scott Stoker in 13 games in 1988.
The record should fall at home next Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. as NSU caps the season and tries for its first .500 record since 2008 as Stephen F. Austin visits in the Battle for Chief Caddo.
Thomas said the Demons will be ready to “finish it right.
“This team will be ready. It’s NSU-SFA, a great rivalry, and these guys have worked too hard for too long not to get after it next week in practice and be ready Saturday at 1 p.m.,” he said.