Healthy QB, stingy defense lead McNeese into pivotal Southland game
(STATS) - A troublesome right thumb kept Daniel Sams from performing at his best in his first season as McNeese State's quarterback.
Sams has proved more versatile since a second surgery on that digit and will try to keep the 22nd-ranked Cowboys unbeaten following a visit from No. 20 Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday night.
McNeese coach Matt Viator said Sams told him in 2014 that he didn't feel quite right after his initial thumb surgery in the final of his two seasons at Kansas State. His career-worst 47.4 completion percentage and 624 passing yards in 10 games appeared to show that.
Sams has bumped that connection rate up to 59.6 percent in the Cowboys' first four games while already setting a personal single-season record with 659 passing yards. He has at least 134 in each game after topping 100 just once last season.
"I think it's the fact that he's healthy and his thumb feels good," Viator said. "He can actually get on top of the ball this year and that was something that he really struggled with last year."
Sams' top target, Kent Shelby, is also healthier after he was limited to three games in 2014 because of a knee injury. The team's other leading receiver, Tavarious Battiste, was redshirted last season.
Sams also has a team-leading 346 rushing yards, giving him 1,864 in his past three seasons and a Southland Conference-best 251.3 total yards per game in 2015. He paced McNeese with 711 yards on the ground in his junior campaign and had 807 while scoring 11 TDs in his final season at K-State.
With Sams' improved health, McNeese has an opportunity to take full command of the Southland lead in the next two games. The Cowboys (4-0, 3-0) will face the league's other unbeaten teams in Southeastern Louisiana (3-1, 2-0) and Central Arkansas (2-2, 2-0).
McNeese brings in the FCS' stingiest defense (6.8 points per contest). The Cowboys are third with 246.5 yards allowed per game and third in rushing defense (76.3 ypg).
"Our defensive coordinator (Lance Guidry) has tried to get guys who play with great attitude and great effort every week," Viator said. "We have some guys who have some speed on that side of the ball and we're getting multiple guys to the ball."
The Cowboys got off to a similar start last season, allowing 14.3 points per game while beginning 3-1 with the lone loss coming via a last-minute touchdown at Nebraska. McNeese then gave up an average of 27.8 points during the heart of conference play en route to a 3-4 finish.
That included a 28-9 defeat at Southeastern Louisiana on Nov. 15, one of three consecutive losses to conclude 2014. Jeff Smiley's two touchdown catches helped send the Lions to their third straight win in the series.
They also won 41-7 in their most recent visit to McNeese in November 2013.
"I think it will be our biggest challenge of the year. It's a huge Southland Conference matchup," Southeastern coach Ron Roberts said. "I think it's going to have huge repercussions down the road who walks away from this game with a W."
Roberts' two-time defending Southland champs needed a late 17-play, 79-yard drive to edge Lamar 30-27 last week. Kody Sutton scored the winning touchdown on fourth down from the 1-yard line with 1:19 left.
D'Shaie Landor threw for 283 yards - more than triple his previous career high - and ran for two TDs in his return from an injured shoulder. STATS preseason All-American Xavier Roberson had 91 of his team's 256 yards on the ground in his first game back from a bruised knee.
There's a chance Lions freshman running back Julius Maraclin could return from a hamstring injury that's kept him out of the past two contests. Maraclin had 120 yards on 12 carries in his collegiate debut, a 34-20 victory at Northwestern State on Sept. 3.