LINCOLN — McNeese State wide receiver Ernest Celestie has a thought for Nebraska. He doesn't know what the Huskers may be thinking of their FCS opponent Saturday, but he knows what they shouldn't do.
"I hope they don't take us lightly and see us as another tune-up game, because that's not it," Celestie said. "We're scrappy, we're fast, we're physical and we never give up. It's tradition here. We refuse to give up."
Even after a team pops an 80-yard touchdown run on its first offensive play. That's what South Florida did to McNeese State last year.
"They counted us out like, 'This is going to be that type of game,' and it wasn't," said Celestie, a three-year contributor after transferring from Texas Tech.
Not at all. The Cowboys scored the next 40 points on the way to a 53-21 rout of the Bulls. They eventually qualified for the FCS playoffs and head into Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium ranked in the top 10 of both FCS polls.
Of course, not every FCS top 10 team is created equally. While three-time defending national champion North Dakota State smeared Iowa State 34-14, New Hampshire lost 54-20 to Toledo, Montana lost 17-12 to Wyoming, and Villanova lost in overtime to Syracuse 27-26. McNeese is mentioned in the same breath as those last three FCS teams, none of which pulled the big upset.
None played a team as prominent as Nebraska, either.
"To be able to walk into that stadium, you know it's going to be packed," Celestie said. "You know the atmosphere is going to be there. There's no doubt.
If you can't get ready to play this game, you have no business playing college football."
Said quarterback Tyler Bolfing: "Growing up watching games on Saturdays, Nebraska was always one of them. It's an incredible opportunity to play in what I'd call a top-five venue in the country."
And it's Bolfing — not bally-hooed Kansas State transfer Daniel Sams — who will get the start Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder spent three years in the McNeese system as a backup.
"It was always his — it was just his to lose," Celestie said of Bolfing, who threw 22 passes last year.
Sams, who shared time with Jake Waters at KSU in 2013 before choosing to transfer closer to his home in Slidell, Louisiana, has been in the program only since June.
"He's a nice young man, and we're trying to work him in as fast as we can," McNeese coach Matt Viator said, "but you're limited in time, in terms of what you can do in August practice, and you're limited in times in terms of what you can do in the summer."
Viator has not yet made Sams available for interviews.
"There's some nuances to every offense — from how it operates to checks to snap counts, formations, motions," Viator said. "He knows the plays, but he just has to continue to grow in the system."
In previous years, the Cowboys preferred more of a spread passing offense, which Viator said fit the skill set of a previous starter. But McNeese State had begun to build more quarterback run into its offense before Sams chose to transfer, Viator said. And it will incorporate more of it this year.
Said Celestie: "Daniel's a runner - not really known for his throwing, but he can run the ball. He's a very good athlete. Tyler's obviously going to be our throwing-down quarterback. They're both proven leaders."
The Cowboys' offense will face a Nebraska defense that held Florida Atlantic to seven points and 200 total yards last Saturday.
"I saw a big, physical defense, guys who run around and make plays, a line that gets after it, and the secondary has guys who can run and make plays in coverage," Bolfing said.
Celestie, who averaged 18.2 yards per catch last year, said Nebraska's secondary looked "pretty smart" and focused on quickly correcting mistakes. He also saw big, physical linemen.
"It's Nebraska. They got size, it's what they're known for — big corn-fed players," Celestie said. "That's what we think of."
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