HAMMOND — A week after handing Southeastern Louisiana its first Southland Conference defeat in three seasons, Stephen F. Austin did the Lions a favor and brought greater clarity to the league race.
With the Lions crushing Houston Baptist 76-7 on Saturday, the Lumberjacks defeated McNeese State 31-16, knocking the Cowboys out of a three-way for the SLC lead and into a three-way logjam for second.
Now with the league’s top two teams — Southeastern (7-3, 5-1) and Sam Houston State (6-4, 5-1) — not scheduled to play one another it’s imperative the Lions handle their end of the bargain with two games remaining in the regular season.
That starts 3 p.m. Saturday when No. 10 SLU entertains No. 11 McNeese (6-3, 4-2) in a key conference game that also represents the final home regular-season game for 23 seniors at Strawberry Stadium.
“I don’t know if that really helps us or not,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said Tuesday at his weekly media luncheon. “It doesn’t matter because we’ve still got to win the next two if we want to be conference champions. We’ve got to win them all. We’ve already had our mistake and we can’t afford to make another one.
“It probably changes things for them,” Roberts said of the Cowboys. “Obviously their backs are against the wall now. In a rivalry game like this, I expect teams to come in and play well any way. I expect them to play with a lot of emotion coming here and clicking on all cylinders.”
Two of the biggest question marks for SLU going into such a game of significance surround the availability of two of its most dynamic players.
The Lions lost the services of starting quarterback Bryan Bennett and return specialist/wide receiver Xavier Roberson to ankle injuries during the Houston Baptist game.
Bennett, who missed the first half of the loss to SFA with a shoulder injury, completed 6 of 10 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns before departing midway through the first quarter.
“He should be fine,” Roberts said of Bennett. “His foot is sore, tender. I don’t know if he’ll practice (Tuesday). Probably not. We have to go on the side of precaution. He should be good to go, hopefully.”
Roberts said it’s possible Bennett, who has completed 114 of 215 passes for 1,910 yards and 13 TDs, could start without practicing this week.
“You put your best one out there that gives you a chance to win,” he said.
The prognosis was unclear for Roberson, the SLC’s top-rated kickoff returner, who was scheduled to meet with a foot specialist Tuesday, Roberts said.
In the event Bennett is unable to start or slowed in any way, senior Jordan Barnett is coming off a career-best outing against Houston Baptist, throwing for 233 yards and three TDs.
“(Barnett) played really well,” Roberts said. “I would expect it to be a carryover. He’s gotten most of the reps the last three weeks anyway.”
Injury has also impacted McNeese’s starting quarterback position with Daniel Sams, a Kansas State transfer, having to leave last week’s game against SFA after aggravating a thumb injury.
Sams has started in eight of the Cowboys’ nine games and is the team’s leading rusher with 711 yards and two TDs.
Junior Tyler Bolfing has three starts and has completed 65 of 112 passes for 817 yards with four TDs and three interceptions. He was sacked six times last week.
“I expect him to play,” Roberts said of Sams. “We’ll prepare for him, but he hasn’t played that much the past two weeks. He gets a lot of attention but the other young guy (Bolfing) is probably the quarterback of that team. With him, it’s more of a traditional McNeese football team.”
Central High School has three players listed in McNeese’s two-deep depth chart with sophomore tight end Zach Hetrick and senior defensive lineman Sean Brown scheduled to start. Senior quarterback Will Briscoe is the backup to Bolfing if Sams can’t play. … Sophomore Khalil Thomas of Catholic High will start at wide receiver and junior Wallace Scott of West Feliciana is the starter at weakside linebacker. … LSU transfer Alex Kjellsten is handling the team’s place-kicking duties.