OGDEN — It was a different caliber of competition, a different locale and a different, much more hopeful frame of mind for the Weber State football team.
But in the end, it turned out to be the same, frustrating outcome for the Wildcats — another demoralizing defeat.
After facing back-to-back, big-boy Football Bowl Subdivision foes on the road to start the season, and subsequently dropping lopsided losses to both Fresno State (37-10) and BYU (45-13), Weber State finally got to play its first home game of the 2012 season on Saturday evening.
And with a similar-sized Football Championship Subdivision opponent, McNeese State, making the long trip across country from Louisiana to face the Wildcats at Stewart Stadium, a Weber State win seemed like at least a decent possibility.
But McNeese State, ranked No. 19 in last week's FCS national poll, had other ideas.
The unbeaten Cowboys (3-0) from the deep South rode a strong performance by junior quarterback Cody Stroud and big-play rushing bursts by Javaris Murray and Diontae Spencer to a 35-21 victory over the winless Wildcats, who were left searching for answers after suffering their third straight setback — their first 0-3 start since 2007.
"It's kind of the same story as the first two weeks," WSU interim head coach Jody Sears said. "Two or three big plays, it makes all the difference.
"… There's no one to look at but the guy in the mirror, and it starts with the coaches, the captains, the players and everybody. Exactly what are we doing day in and day out? We did some uncharacteristic things today — two foolish penalties and guys dropping the ball — and you can't do that. It goes back to our daily business.
"I'm not going to cry and whine about this thing," Sears said. "We're gonna pick ourselves up and take this thing head-on, throw our shoulders back and put our chin in the air and move forward. We're not going to cry and whine about this thing. I told 'em I didn't want to hear no excuses and no complaining. Put your chest out, your shoulders back and your chin up and we'll get back to work on Monday."
Stroud, bolstered by a bevy of fleet-footed and elusive receivers, completed 20-of-27 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown while running for another McNeese State score. Eleven Cowboys had receptions, led by Ernest Celestie with five catches for 97 yards.
"We expected a tough fight from them," Stroud said of the Wildcats. "We knew they were going to be physical, but I thought we did a good job of adjusting our routes and got some great runs."
Spencer, a junior wide receiver, broke loose for a 91-yard scoring scamper on a perfectly executed end-around play down the sideline early in the third quarter to give the Cowboys a 21-7 lead. It came right after the Wildcats had recovered a Cowboy fumble deep in McNeese State territory, only to give the ball right back to the 'Boys on an interception.
"That was definitely the turning point of the game," said McNeese State coach Matt Viator. "The momentum had switched as they were coming off a touchdown and a turnover. But Guy (Morgan) made a great play for the pick and Tiger (Spencer) had a great run."
Murray, a junior tailback, carried the ball 12 times for 122 yards and a touchdown — that one coming on a 76-yard sprint to the end zone midway through the fourth quarter that fattened the Cowboys' cushion to 35-7.
"Those two (long TD) runs just absolutely killed us," Sears said. "Until we understand precisely and exactly that when we play a good football team, which we just got done doing, you've got to be right on every single snap or one will pop on you."
McNeese State piled up 557 yards of total offense, 301 of which came on the ground, while limiting the Wildcats to just 257 total yards — 144 through the air and 113 rushing.
"We were pretty much shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties or bad decisions by me or something that always seemed to kill a drive," said WSU quarterback Mike Hoke, who managed to complete just 9-of-19 passes for a paltry 69 yards, which included a 10-yard TD toss to Shaydon Kehano. Hoke was sacked three times.
Weber State punter Tony Epperson was again a bright spot, breaking a school record by averaging 55 yards on eight punts. And Danny Mullarkey recovered two fumbles for the WSU defense.
The Wildcats made the final score look much more respectable by scoring two touchdowns in the final four minutes. C.J. Tuckett went 2 yards for a touchdown with 3:50 to go, and backup quarterback Jordan Adamczyk added a 3-yard TD run of his own with 20 seconds left.
But adding injury to insult, Kehano — Weber's leading receiver with six catches for 80 yards and a touchdown — suffered a possible fractured fibula in his right leg on the next-to-last WSU scoring drive. He will be re-evaluated on Monday.