There were no tears shed after the Texas State Bobcats saw their playoff aspirations all but end Saturday night. They played well. They could have won. They lost.
It was everything a football game is supposed to be Saturday night, when the McNeese State Cowboys nudged past the Bobcats, 30-27, at Bobcat Stadium. It was a battle for the late lead in the Southland Conference, it was a meeting between two nationally ranked teams, and it was a game played by two teams like they meant it.
The Bobcats won’t lament this loss. They entered the game ranked 25th nationally, McNeese came in ranked 10th nationally, the game was broadcast regionally on the Southland Conference’s television network, and two good football teams put on a good show of football. It wasn’t a roll-over loss to a team that didn’t win a game the previous year, and it wasn’t a blown 24-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“Credit to them for making a couple plays,’ Texas State head coach Brad Wright said.
Said Texas State running back Mishak Rivas, “You can’t talk about wins and losses. You have to play hard all the time. If you give it your best, you don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
So, it was not a moment Texas State football fans will forever savor. It merely could have been.
The loss dropped the Bobcats to 6-4 overall and 4-2 in the Southland Conference, tied for third place. Texas State, McNeese, Stephen F. Austin and Southeastern Louisiana all entered the game 4-1. Earlier Saturday, SFA drummed Southeastern Louisiana, 41-10.
With that news, the Bobcats knew that if they could just beat McNeese, then come back a week later to beat Sam Houston State at home, they would win the Southland Conference.
In retrospect, the reason the Bobcats won’t win the Southland Conference or go to the playoffs occurred late in a game on Oct. 17, four weeks ago, at the end of their 34-28 win at Nicholls State. If that game began the four-game winning streak that would put the Bobcats in the driver’s seat by early Saturday evening, it also contained the seeds of their demise.
At the end of the Nicholls game, Bobcats running back Karrington Bush took a hit that tore up the major ligaments in his right knee, disabling him for the rest of the season. Bush had rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons.
Without him, the Bobcats have rushed for a total of 370 yards in their last four games. For three straight weeks now, the Bobcats haven’t reached 100 rushing yards as a team.
With Bush down and the Bobcats working with a defense that’s almost guaranteed to give up 400 yards, it fell to senior quarterback Bradley George to carry the team. And he almost did it.
George has blasted through the last half of his senior season with the Bobcats on his arm, which produced 916 passing yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in three games leading up to Saturday. By late in the fourth quarter Saturday night, George threw 210 passes without an interception. Two or three more would have made a big difference.
George started the Bobcats from their own 20 Saturday night as they trailed, 30-27, with 1:30 and no timeouts remaining. George proceeded to complete six of seven passes, moving the Bobcats to the McNeese State 39 with 26 seconds left. But then George tried it again, deep down the middle to Corey Scott, and it was that 211th pass, the one that was intercepted by McNeese’s Malcom Bronson at his own ten with 22 seconds remaining.
“I was just trying to make a play,” George said.
“It’s a game in inches,” Wright said.
It’s also a game of adjustments. McNeese made the adjustment on its defensive side, after Texas State’s Alvin Canady took a pitch 12 yards around right end to give the Bobcats a touchdown and a 20-7 lead with 8:19 left in the first half. To that point, the Bobcats passed for 151 yards and ran for 63. For the remainder of the game, they would pass for 148 yards and rush for 32. After the first quarter, George completed 13 of 26 passes.
“We dropped them back,” McNeese State coach Matt Viator said about his defenders. “ … Once we started moving the ball, we wanted to keep (the Texas State receivers) in front of us.”
Said Wright, “They did a lot more three down and dropping eight than we’ve seen them do before.”
By halftime, the Cowboys tied the game, 20-20, then the second half turned into a serious slugfest between two teams that knew their chances hung on this game. But the Bobcats couldn’t stop McNeese running back Toddrick Pendland, and the Bobcats couldn’t present McNeese a similar running back to stop.
Pendland carried for 130 yards in 13 carried during the first half, scoring two touchdowns on the ground. One of those went 33 yards. Another first half carry covered 57 yards. At the end of the night, Pendland carried 31 times for 187 yards. Meanwhile, the Bobcats couldn’t spring big plays on the ground. Their longest carry of the evening was 14 yards from Canady.
Texas State came out strong offensively, moving 80 yards in ten plays for a touchdown. George completed five of eight passes for 67 yards, including the 17-yard touchdown pass to Rivas. But McNeese punched right back with 82 yards in eight plays for a touchdown to tie the game, 7-7, on Pendland’s three-yard run.
The Bobcats remained unstoppable when they took the ball back, moving 79 yards in nine plays for another touchdown. George completed four of five passes for 72 yards before Canady took a pitch around the right corner for the score. But kicker Ryan Batchelor missed the conversion and the Bobcats lead stood at 13-7.
After the later touchdown by Canady extended the Texas State lead to 20-7 in the second quarter, the game began to turn. McNeese went 84 yards in six plays, with Pendland’s 33-yard touchdown run bringing the Cowboys within 20-13 with 5:49 left in the half. Then, the McNeese defense made the Bobcats go three-and-out for the first time all day and McNeese took over at its own 40 after an 18-yard punt return.
With that, McNeese picked through the Texas State defense, reaching the goal line in ten plays. McNeese quarterback Derrick Fourroux completed six of six passes for 51 yards, including the two-yard touchdown pass to Corday Clark with 26 seconds left in the half.
For a relatively high-scoring game, it was a day of long drives. McNeese put together another one on their second possession of the second half, covering 80 yards in 12 plays. Pendland ran for 25 yards, while Fourroux ran for 24 yards and passed for the other 31. Pendland scored the touchdown on a five-yard run, giving McNeese its first lead of the game at 27-20 with 4:03 left in the third quarter.
But this wasn’t a game in which anyone was going to have it too good for too long. After McNeese scored 20 straight points, it was the Bobcats’ turn. They immediately answered by going 63 yards in four plays for a touchdown. George completed a 41-yard pass to Da’Marcus Griggs, putting the ball on the McNeese 14. Canady covered the last 14 yards with a touchdown run to make it 27-27 with 3:04 left in the quarter.
From the last three minutes of the third quarter until deep in the fourth, both teams punted twice. But McNeese responded with the drive of the game. Taking over at its own 16 with 8:49 remaining and the game tied, 27-27, McNeese lurched down the field, slowly and sure-footed. Fourroux completed four of five passes for 45 yards, and rushed four times for 17 yards. Pendland carried five times, but for only 11 yards. Three times, the Cowboys converted third down. By the time they couldn’t do that anymore, they were down to the Texas State 10. So, they turned it over to kicker Josh Lewis, who punched up a 28-yard field goal with 1:30 left, giving McNeese a 30-27 lead.
And that’s when it came down, naturally, again, to George, who came up just short as he tried to stick that 211th consecutive pass without an interception way down at the McNeese 10. With that, the Bobcats were down to one last game this year, a rivalry match with Sam Houston State next Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
The Bobcats could still win the Southland Conference, but they would have to win next Saturday, while McNeese, SFA and Southeastern Louisiana all lose. Then, the Bobcats would be in a three-way tie with SFA and McNeese at 5-2 in the league, and it would go deep into the tiebreakers, since they beat SFA, SFA beat McNeese and McNeese beat them.
SFA is in the driver’s seat. If the Lumberjacks win next Saturday against Northwestern State, they win the southland. If McNeese beats Central Arkansas and SFA loses, then McNeese is the champ. But McNeese is likely to be in the playoffs with a 9-2 record if they just beat Central Arkansas. Meanwhile, the Bobcats are hoping for a set of miracles.
Saturday’s game was that important.
“It’s a big-time win for our program,” Viator said. “When you go on the road and beat the defending conference champions on their field, it’s a big win.”
With Saturday night’s result, the Bobcats almost certainly won’t be defending that championship next year.