LAKE CHARLES — They have been Hawaii and beaten Western Kentucky, yet Central Arkansas finds itself a bit lost heading into Saturday’s showdown with McNeese State.
The Bears, picked as the preseason Southland Conference favorites ,are in the same position as the Cowboys, fighting for their lives midway through the season.
McNeese, coming off the biggest win under first-year head coach Sterlin Gilbert, is back in the Southland race, barely. At 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the league, the Cowboys can’t afford another slip and still think they can win any piece of the title. UCA 3-2, 1-1, is likely thinking the same thing.
“It is a big game against a really good opponent,” said Gilbert.
Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. in Conway, Arkansas.
“Central Arkansas is a very good team and we will have to be at our best,” said Gilbert. “This is the next game in our process.”
For the first time all season McNeese looked like the team Gilbert had talked about bringing to town.
They raced out to a 24-3 lead last week against favored Southeastern Louisiana and then rallied late to finally win the game.
The defense was solid as usual, but the offense behind Cody Orgeron’s three touchdown passes finally lived up to its hype.
“We really played a great all around game,” said Orgeron.
“This is a game that could be the start of something. We hope to build from this.”
The next building block is the No. 16 Bears, who are coming off a loss that has their season also at its crossroads.
“They are going to want to get back on track,” said Gilbert. “They are going to want to take it out on us. We will have to be ready.
“What we have learned this year is that we can play with good teams. It is about us.”
McNeese has found a running game, as South Florida transfer Elijah Mack has rushed for over 100 yards in two of the last three games. He has 395 yards on 78 carries overall and three touchdowns. He is averaging 4.9 yards a rush.
“I am an angry runner,” said Mack.
The McNeese offense has found some balance. Orgeron has thrown for 528 yards and five touchdowns over the last two games.
“We are starting to get better on offense,” said Orgeron. “We have been close but we are getting into a rhythm now.”
Central Arkansas is led by quarterback Breylin Smith, who has completed 123-of-183 pass attempts for 1,341 yards and 10 touchdowns to just three interceptions. His top target is Lujuan Winningham, who has 32 catches for 551 yards and seven scores.
“He is a good quarterback who can throw the football and has some good receivers,” said Gilbert. “Our defense will be tested.”
Whichever team passes Saturday’s test stays alive in the Southland Conference title race.
The loser is out, especially if it is McNeese.