Southeastern Louisiana head football coach Ron Roberts. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 9:49 PM
In his second season at the helm of Southeastern Louisiana, Ron Roberts has the Lions rolling after years of also-ran status.
No. 25 SLU (6-2, 3-0 Southland) is ranked for the first time since Week 3 of the 2004 season, and in the midst of its first five-game winning streak since 1983.
Saturday’s game at No. 4 McNeese State (7-1, 3-0) is arguably the biggest for the program since resurrecting football a decade ago — and fittingly it was the Cowboys who set the Lions on that path.
Roberts points to last year’s 25-24 win over McNeese as the turning point for his program. SLU went into that game 0-3 and has gone 11-5 since.
“It was a huge moment for us,” Roberts said. “They’ve done it for years, a power not just in the Southland Conference but in FCS football. I said it before last year and will say it now: they’re where we want to be.
“For us to get that win — it was huge for our program and what we were trying to sell to our players. That helped us the rest of the year that we were able to have some success.”
That belief was buoyed by the improbability of the events that transpired in Hammond last year.
McNeese very well could have put the game out of reach with a touchdown on the final drive of the first half. But after driving to the SLU 6, the Cowboys were held to a field goal, keeping the Lions within two scores at 24-10.
Things took a walk on the wild side in the fourth quarter.
Leading 24-17, McNeese had another chance to stick a fork in the Lions, but Josh Lewis missed a 36-yard field goal attempt on the same field he had nailed a 53-yarder to win the game two years earlier.
The Cowboys defense did its job on the ensuing possession, forcing SLU to punt. Only the Lions didn’t. A perfectly executed fake on fourth-and-11 kept the drive alive, and a wide-open Taylor Jenkins caught a 3-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal with 2:39 left to set things up for the tie.
McNeese was called for too many men in the huddle before the point after, moving the ball the 11⁄2-yard line. With nothing to lose, Roberts went for the 2-point conversion and got the lead.
McNeese still had time to win, but future second-round NFL draft pick Robert Alford ended that with a one-handed interception on the first play of the drive.
Needless to say, the whole thing isn’t remembered quite as fondly in Lake Charles.
“Any loss hurts no matter what team it is, but knowing Southeastern got us by one point put some hurt in my heart,” said wide receiver Diontae Spencer. “We knew we were the better team that day and the scoreboard didn’t reflect it. I felt after the game the vibe in the locker room was ‘Next year we have to prove to these boys that we’re the better team.’”
Though there are plenty of returners from that game, plenty has changed on both sides.
The most notable for SLU is at quarterback, where Oregon transfer Bryan Bennett is at the helm. Bennett is ranked 11th in the country in passing efficiency — three spots behind Cody Stroud — but they couldn’t do it much differently.
Bennett is far more of a mobile threat, leading SLU with 533 rushing yards and nine touchdowns while throwing for 1,712 yards and nine scores. However, he’s also much more turnover-prone than his McNeese counterpart with seven interceptions.
Defensively, the Lions have learned to live without Alford, who starts for the Atlanta Falcons. Cornerback Maurice Sutton has three interceptions, two of which returned for touchdowns.
Middle linebacker Cqulin Hubert, a Texas Tech transfer, has also made life unpleasant for opposing offenses with 42 tackles, seven of which were behind the line of scrimmage.
“We have so much more depth,” Roberts said. “We’re a lot better defensive football team. We have a lot more players that can help contribute. We have to play a lot more consistent.”