By Jim Gazzolo
Special to the Daily News
BATON ROUGE — With just under 2 minutes left in the second quarter Saturday night, McNeese State’s season lay motionless on the turf of A.W. Mumford Stadium.
Quarterback Cody Orgeron had just been leveled with a violent hit and it seemed his return for the season let alone against Southern University was in doubt.
And down 11 points at the time, the once-promising fall season appeared lost before it got started.
But adversity is nothing new to these Cowboys, or Orgeron, who returned for the second half to lead a McNeese uprising that resulted in a desperately needed 31-24 victory to avoid an 0-3 start to the season.
It was the Cowboys’ first win in three outings.
“Losing this game was not an option,” Orgeron said. “No way I was going to spend the rest of the night on the bench.”
At first it didn’t look good. Down 21-10 at the half, Mc-Neese (1-2) needed something to get going. Head coach Frank Wilson may have provided that with a few words.
“We challenged them,” said Wilson, who added his message was simple. “Wake your (expletive) up, it’s time to play.”
The defense admitted when Southern’s Kaymen St. Junious, who was ejected for targeting on the play, hit a sliding Orgeron at the end of a scramble, things got more than a little interesting.
“I took that personal,” said Harris, who had a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. “That is my quarterback. We had to do right by Cody.”
That attitude did not surprise the coach.
“They love Cody,” Wilson said. “He’s our leader. When he took that shot it lit a fire and they wanted to protect him.
“It woke up a sleeping dog. Why we were sleeping, I don’t know.”
The Cowboys defense did awake, allowing only a late field goal in the second half. Meanwhile, the offense got clicking.
Orgeron gave McNeese the lead for good with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Josh Matthews with 12:49 left. After he found Mason Pierce in the end zone for the 2-point conversion, the Cowboys led 28-21.
Jacob Abel hit the third of his three field goals, this one from 27 yards out to extend the lead to 31-21 five minutes later.
Orgeron finished 8 of 17 for 87 yards.
McNeese used Stephon Huderson as its big weapon. The transfer from Tulane had 111 yards on 23 carries, including a 13-yard TD run to cut the lead to 21-17 early in the third. It was Huderson’s first 100-yard game as a Cowboy.
“Felt good to be in control out there,” Huderson said. “The offensive line did its job and left me one-one-one with the secondary so I could earn my chicken.”
Abel was nothing to balk at either as he booted field goals of 32 and 25 yards to go with his fourth-quarter kick. This after he missed his first attempt of the season, which set off a two-week search for a new kicker only to have him earn the job back.
While a lot of talk will be on the offense and its response, this game was won by the defense, which got two turnovers in the second half that were both converted into points. Just as important, after giving up 244 yards of offense in the first half, McNeese allowed 39 on the first five Jaguars drives after intermission.
“Our defense woke up and settled down,” Wilson said. “It was a challenge to our defense and you saw what they could do.”
Pierce started things off right for McNeese when it took the opening kickoff and raced 100 yards in 13 seconds for a 7-0 lead.
“There was a big hole and I just ran through it,” he said.
He had a 95-yard kick return in the spring. It was believed to be the first ever kick return for a touchdown to start a game in McNeese history and the second of 100 yards.
But after that fast start the Cowboys fell into a funk. The Jaguars (1-2) scored the next three touchdowns, all on passes from Ladarius Skelton.
The first went to Travis Tucker for 42 yards on a blown coverage. Then next was a 7-yard strike to Devon Benn and another 42-yarder to Ethan Howard with 2:12 left in the first half.
That gave Southern a 21-10 lead, which set the stage for the hit on Orgeron moments later and the rest was history.
“We found a way to win,” Wilson said. “Wins are hard to come by. You have to do what you can to get them.”