Seven teams have tried to run the ball against McNeese State. Seven have failed miserably.
The undefeated and seventh-ranked Cowboys have the third-best rush defense in FCS. McNeese State’s opponents are averaging 2.3 yards per carry and 74 yards a game on the ground.
“Stopping the run is our main concern,” said McNeese defensive coordinator Lance Guidry.
When Guidry took the defensive coordinator job in 2013, it was actually his fourth stint with McNeese State and second in charge of the Cowboys defense. His first stint was from 2000 to 2004. During those five years he coined a phrase for what he wanted from his 11 starters. He wanted “Defense with Attitude” otherwise known as D.W.A.
“That means giving great effort, being a great tackler, watching film and transferring it to the field,” Guidry said. “The main point of emphasis is being physical.”
Each team that McNeese has faced this year has been held well under their rush average. Incarnate Word could only muster a mere 12 yards on the ground against McNeese, 118 below their average. Mississippi College was putting up 214 yards a game and managed only 99. Nicholls State was held to 35 yards, 115 below their average. There was a 147 yard differential between what SE Louisiana was averaging on the ground (206 yards) and what they were held to (59).
The most rushing yards given up by the Cowboys this season is 159 to Stephen F. Austin: SFA though was averaging 216 yards. The highest rushing yard by an opposing running back is 77 yards by Northwestern State’s Joe Blumenthal.
What’s so impressive about McNeese’s defensive effort is that they are doing it with a group of sophomores. The Cowboys start three on the defensive line: Anthony Yruegas and Isaiah Golden at defensive tackle along with Jammerio Gross at defensive end. Ashari Goins is one of two starting linebackers in Guidry’s 5-2-4 defense. Dominique Hill lines up at safety.
Being an upperclassman doesn’t automatically mean being inserted into McNeese’s starting lineup. Putting the five sophomores on the field is something that each of them has earned every week.
“We don’t have starters named at the beginning of the year,” said Guidry. “You have to earn it each week. Productivity in practice translates into productivity in games.”
Golden is the beneficiary of getting a second chance. He played as a true freshman for Texas A&M in 2013 but was dismissed from the team in the summer of 2014. He sat out all of last year before playing for the Cowboys.
“If you can start (in six games) as a true freshman at Texas A&M, you know you are getting a good player,” Guidry said.
Disrupting the quarterback has proven to be Golden’s best attribute this year. When having to throw the ball because of the Cowboys lethal rush defense, Golden has recorded a team-high 10 quarterback hurries.
Although his on-the-field resume isn’t as impressive as Golden, Yruegas is a nice complement to the former Aggie. He has three times as many tackles in seven games this season as he did all of last season.
Gross also saw spot duty last year before proving himself weekly this year. His 7.5 tackles for loss this season, including three sacks, is second best on the team.
At the linebacker spot, Goins had a terrific freshman campaign. He played in all 11 games last year. This year Guidry has been asked Goins to be the eyes of his defense.
Yet the sophomore who has made the biggest impact and has the highest upside is Hill. This year he leads the team in tackles (44) and tackles for a loss (10.5) along with an interception.
“I knew we had something special (in Hill) the first game last year,” Guidry said.
The Cowboys opened 2014 at Nebraska. In the game’s very first possession, the Cornhuskers decided to go for it facing a fourth-and-1 on McNeese’s 48-yard line. Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah took the handoff. The same Ameer Abdullah who finished with 1,611 yards and was drafted in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Hill stuck the senior for a 5-yard loss.
Tuesday is the first day of the week Guidry implements the Cowboys game plan. It always starts with practicing against the run.
“Today’s offenses are so complicated, so fast,” said Guidry. “You can study run schemes, zone-reads but if you don’t line up properly you are going to get burned.”
So far, only the opposing teams have been toast.