McNeese State avoids UWA upset bid

Published 7:33 pm Sunday, September 15, 2013

LAKE CHARLES, La. – With 45 seconds left to play in what was a Southwest Louisiana shootout at Cowboy Stadium, McNeese State quarterback Cody Stroud found Diontae Spencer from 20 yards out on a fourth-and-4 play to secure a 44-42 victory over West Alabama Saturday.

The two teams combined for 1,068 yards, with West Alabama putting up 565 yards on a team that had already upset FBS member South Florida and won its first two games by an average score of 55-17.

McNeese improved to 3-0 and West Alabama dropped to 1-1. The Tigers remain on the road, facing a short week with a Thursday night game at Florida Tech. CBS Sports will televise the game.

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“It hurts, but we have a great football team. Character just exudes from us. We sweat and bleed character,” West Alabama head coach Will Hall said. “What a great group of young men to come down here and do what they did.”

Kyle Caldwell completed 13-of-20 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns, while Kedrick Rhodes ran for 75 yards and Gary Johnston for 67 of UWA’s 265 rushing yards. Chad Toocheck caught three passes for 116 yards and a score.

“I think McNeese knows they played somebody tonight,” Hall said. “We are disappointed, but we have a chance to do some special things in Division II. Our kids played their hearts out.”

West Alabama served notice on the first offensive play of the football game when Caldwell connected with Toocheck for a 75-yard touchdown pass. McNeese came right back, driving 45 yards on eight plays to tie the score at 7-7. Stroud connected with tight end Zach Hetrick on a 3-yard scoring toss to cap off the drive.

The Tigers answered with a seven-play, 75-yard drive to go ahead 14-7 with 7:40 left in the first quarter. Caldwell found Seth Roberts on a 24-yard scoring toss to cap the drive. A 35-yard run by Javae Swindle set up the score.

“This is the most resilient football team I have ever been a part of,” Tiger center Skeeter Sellers said. “The heart we displayed in this game is something that can’t go unheard by the Division II football nation.”

Unruffled, the Cowboys drove 69 yards in 11 plays on the next possession, capping off the drive with a 16-yard scoring toss from Stroud to Wes Briscoe. Stroud threw for a McNeese State record five touchdown passes and 366 yards on a 30-for-43 night.

West Alabama climbed back on top 21-14 on a 1-yard sneak on a fourth-down try by Johnston, capping a 10-play, 75-yard drive with just 1:50 gone in the second period. Ryan Rome kicked a 31-yard field goal on the Cowboys’ next possession to cut West Alabama’s lead to 21-17with 10:39 left in the first half.

UWA drove to the McNeese State 6 yard line before an errant pitch was recovered by the Cowboys to thwart the drive. McNeese then drove 83 yards in seven plays to take its first lead of the game, 24-21 with 4:17 left in the half, on a 4-yard TD pass from Stroud to Nic Jacobs.

“Two fumbles and an interception in scoring position or we would have come down here and slayed the dragon,” Hall said. “Again, I just can’t say enough about our character.”

After the Tiger defense stopped McNeese on fourth and 1 on the Cowboys first drive of the second half, Caldwell begin the third period just like he started the game. He connected for 57 yards and a score to tight end Ty Morgan. The one-play drive resulted in the sophomore from Sweet Water’s first career touchdown reception.

West Alabama stopped the Cowboys on downs on the next possession when Demetrus McNeal intercepted Stroud on fourth down, but the Tigers drive stalled. The Cowboys dodged having to make another fourth-down decision when West Alabama was flagged for targeting, setting up a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Dylan Long to put McNeese State back on top 31-28.

“We faced the challenge and played well,” linebacker Ben Brooks said. ” We started slow on defense, but we picked it up. It hurts to come this close, but we played well and surprised some people.”

Not to be outdone, UWA rallied to take a 35-31 lead with 22 seconds left in the third period. Rhodes blasted free up the middle for 29 yards for his first touchdown as a Tiger.

On the next possession Stroud threw his fourth touchdown pass, a 28-yard strike to Jereon McGilvery on a fourth and 4 play to put the Cowboys back on top, 38-35, with 12:58 left in the game.

West Alabama promptly drove to the McNeese State 28 yard line before Michael Ware recovered a Markeyus Johnson fumble to end the threat with 10:00 left in the game.

Facing a third and 25 from the McNeese State 32 with 3:41 to play, Caldwell connected with Seth Roberts for 30 yards to the Cowboy 2, setting up Johnston’s second rushing touchdown of the night to put UWA up 42-38 with 3:41 left.

Marcus Wiltz carried 18 times for 65 yards to lead Cowboy rushers. Spencer caught six passes for 122 yards and returned four kickoffs for 79 yards.