The Cowboys return 13 starters (7 offense, 5 defense, 1 specialist) from the 2007 squad that posted an 11-0 regular season record on the Football Championship Subdivison level, formerly known as Div. I-AA. Head coach Matt Viator has led his program to back-to-back Southland Conference Championships, and coached McNeese State to a win over D-IA opponent UL-Lafayette, 38-17, last season. With eight all-conference standouts returning, including 2006 conference player of the year WR Steven Whitehead, the Cowboys look to make amends for last season's opening round defeat to Eastern Washington (44-15) in the FCS playoffs.
"It's obviously a tremendous challenge. Anytime you go play an ACC team with high expectations and a good coach, it's going to be a tough challenge. But, our kids are excited and it's a good opportunity for our program." – McNeese State head coach Matt Viator
"This is definitely a confidence builder, but we're not going to take this team for granted at all. That's how teams get knocked off, and that's how you have Michigan and those teams lose those types of games because they come in expecting to win." – UNC running back Greg Little
"I'm not a huge fan of playing against the spread. I know some guys probably are, but it's tough. It adds a new complex to the defense. The quarterback is a huge threat to run, and so you have to be aware of who's got containment and who's got the quarterback on pitches and just different aspects like that in the read option. It's tough. It's a tough deal to scheme against defensively." – UNC middle linebacker Mark Paschal
"They have some good players [and] they have high expectations. They're picked second in the Coastal Division behind Virginia Tech, and they're going to obviously cause us some problems on both sides of the ball… It's a big test ahead of us for sure, but I think our kids are excited about going down there." – McNeese State head coach Matt Viator
Junior quarterback Derrick Fourroux (pronounced fah-rue) earned second-team All-Southland Conference honors last season after completing 125 of his 218 passes for 2,054 yards and 16 touchdowns. If those numbers don't jump off the page at you, it's for good reason – the Erath, La. product is a quintessential spread offense quarterback whose importance to McNeese State extends beyond the typical passing statistics.
Fourroux also finished second on the team with 550 rushing yards in 2007, boosting his total offense average to 217 yards per contest. Not only is the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder able to rush for over a hundred yards as he did against Nicholls State last fall, but he's also solid enough as a pocket passer to lead the SLC in passing efficiency and rank 10th nationally with a 156.12 mark.
"We expect big things [from Fourroux]," Viator said during Tuesday's conference call. "We think he's developed really well, and he does what we ask him to do. He has the ability that we're excited about and he's expanded on through the years to both run it and throw it. He throws the ball really well on the run, but we think he's really improved as a pocket passer. He's our guy… The players and the coaches have the utmost respect for Derrick, and he's as tough as any kid on our team."
The 22-year-old is similar to numerous quarterbacks that excel in spread offense. He is a versatile athlete that threw for 18 touchdowns and ran for 17 more as a senior at Erath High School, in addition to playing defensive back. Fourroux played basketball and baseball, while also earning regional distinction as a triple jump standout in track.
Matchups to Watch
McNeese State's wide receivers vs. UNC's cornerbacks
The Cowboys use their variation of the spread offense to maximize the playmaking abilities of standout wide receivers Quinten Lawrence and Steven Whitehead. Lawrence (6-1, 180, Sr.) is a preseason first-team All-Southland Conference selection that caught 31 balls for 645 yards and six touchdowns last season, while Whitehead (5-8, 173) is the 2006 Southland Conference Player of the Year that sat out the majority of 2007 with a medical red-shirt. The duo has combined for 166 career receptions for 2,582 yards and 23 touchdowns, and both boast 4.3 speed – or less – in the 40-yard dash.
"I think we're really talented at wideout," Viator said. "We're fortunate that we're able to put three or four wideouts out there that can really make plays, and last year it helped us."
With McNeese State focusing on getting its speedsters out in space, preferably in one-on-one situations, North Carolina's inexperienced group at cornerback will get a much-needed early season test. Kendric Burney returns after a solid red-shirt freshman season at one spot, but fellow starter and sophomore Charles Brown missed the majority of training camp with an ankle sprain.
Red-shirt junior Jordan Hemby will see his first significant action after battling injuries for much of his career, and red-shirt sophomore Tavorris Jolly is hoping to erase the images of Miami quarterback Kyle Wright picking on him last season for a 97-yard touchdown pass. Running backs-turned-cornerbacks Johnny White and Richie Rich are still adjusting to their new positions, leaving plenty of question marks for the Tar Heels on the edges in the secondary.
At worst, the Cowboys' weapons will provide an important warm-up for North Carolina's next opponent – Rutgers and its two returning 1,000-yard receivers in Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt.
UNC's Rushing Attack vs. McNeese State's Front Seven
The North Carolina ground game has been dissected over the past nine months, and the conclusion that most everyone arrives at is this – Yes, the Tar Heels finished the season ranked 117th nationally (10th ACC) with a 99.17 rushing yards per game average, but Greg Little's late season flurry (243 yards and two touchdowns in two games) gives UNC hope for 2008.
And while Little has not been shy about his emergence on the Division I-A level, he's going to have to prove it over the course of a full season. First up – McNeese State.
"Greg Little's running as hard as ever," Paschal said. "He's a big fella – he's 6-foot-3, 220. He's not going to go down with one tackler, and that's one of most exciting things for us defensively, because we've had a hard time tackling him. It's made us better defensively and it's exciting for the offense."
McNeese State returns preseason All-SLC defensive tackles in Vaalyn Jackson and Kenneth Lundy, but lost two-thirds of its starting linebacker corps and both defensive ends, including 3rd-round NFL draft pick Bryan Smith. The Cowboys top tackler is back in linebacker Allen Nelson (102), but after allowing opponents to rush for 153.2 yards per game and 15 touchdowns on a 3.8 yards-per-carry average, it's difficult to imagine this program defending the run adequately enough to shut down Little and his sidekicks, Ryan Houston and Shaun Draughn.
* McNeese State is ranked 10th in both the Sports Network's and the Coaches' 2008 preseason polls.
* The Cowboys scored on 88 percent (43-49) of their red zone trips in 2007.
* Saturday's contest is not the first time that Butch Davis has coached against the Cowboys – his Miami Hurricanes defeated them, 61-14, in 2000.
* McNeese State played in and won the very first Independence Bowl game in 1976, knocking off Tulsa, 20-16.