HAMMOND — What may have seemed an obscure season-opening FCS game to some had plenty of relevance when Eastern Washington took a 56-35 victory over Sam Houston State.
The deeper meaning is still to be determined when the NCAA hands out its postseason football bids in less than three months, but Eastern Washington’s win translated into a solid win for the Big Sky Conference over the Southland Conference.
When No. 3 Southeastern Louisiana (1-0) returns to Strawberry Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday, the Lions will be presented with an opportunity that could have far-reaching effects when they host Southern Utah out of the same conference.
“I hope to God everything goes right for us to get in the playoffs,” Southeastern coach Ron Roberts said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “But as a conference, do you get two, do you get three teams? How you do in these interconference games can hold a lot of weight. They’re going to look at the matchups and they’re going to say, ‘How strong is your conference’? It will have some implications.”
Southern Utah (0-1) was an FCS playoff team a year ago. But it was eliminated in the first round 55-20 by Sam Houston State, which lost a week later to Southeastern 30-29.
The Thunderbirds, who were picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky, opened their season last week with a 28-19 road loss against Nevada, putting up 380 yards but allowing 547, including 303 through the air.
“This week, we’ve got a different animal,” Roberts said. “Southern Utah’s a playoff team a year ago. They’ve a very good football team. They’re very well coached. They don’t make a lot of mistakes.”
A 27-point, first-quarter explosion removed any hint of drama in Southeastern’s rain-drenched, season-opening 44-3 win over Jacksonville.
Senior quarterback Bryan Bennett accounted for 404 of his team’s 564 total yards and three of six touchdowns. The Lions defense also got into the scoring act when Tulane transfer Jordan Batiste forced a fumble that Micah Eugene, an LSU transfer, returned 3 yards for a touchdown.
“We want to set a pretty high standard for the defense,” Southeastern senior linebacker Isiah Corbett said. “They didn’t get a touchdown. We want to improve on that and hold them to zero points. It all came together as a whole, and (we) held them out of the end zone.”
Bennett was 11-of-16 for 311 yards passing with an interception and two touchdowns to running back Rasheed Harrell and recent UL-Lafayette transfer Dylan Bossier. Bennett’s 93 yards rushing included an 83-yard touchdown.
Southeastern had 11 players carry at least once and nine receivers with at least one reception in a game in which the majority of the team’s starters enjoyed the fourth quarter from the sideline.
“I was pleased with the opener,” Roberts said. “I think we made mistakes, and there’s plenty of room for improvement, obviously. We got a lot of guys in, got a lot of guys their first time under real fire.
“We’ve got some guys (who) are still competing for jobs, sitting in maybe the two spot, and got them some substantial reps,” Roberts said. “It was a good chance to evaluate them. They need to develop. It’s always good when you can get a big win at home and an opportunity to play a lot of people.”
For the second time in his career, Corbett was named the Southland’s defensive player of the week, registering seven tackles and two stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Corbett spearheaded a unit that limited Jacksonville’s offense, regarded as one of the nation’s top 10 in scoring (41.8) and total offense (522.7) last season, to 222 yards and a field goal.
“For a season opener, it was pretty good, but we’re not satisfied,” Corbett said. “We can play better. We watched film and saw mistakes we could have improved on. We want to play our best game, and that’s going to take time.”
Junior wide receiver Blane Arnold, a Catholic High-Baton Rouge graduate, drew praise from Roberts after catching a pass for 14 yards and running for another 7 yards. Arnold has been limited to 15 games in his career, including four over the past two years because of injuries. “He played really well when he got in there,” Roberts said. “He’s a solid, consistent football player and he’s going to be a good player for us this year.” … Southeastern is looking to start 2-0 for the first time since 2009. .. Roberts said junior defensive end A.J. Bowen, who suffered an elbow injury, is expected to play Saturday. Roberts also expects junior quarterback Jordan Barnett to return from a preseason concussion. … Former LSU offensive coordinator (2004-08) Gary Crowton is in his first season as offensive coordinator for Southern Utah. He’s also been the head coach of the Chicago Bears, Louisiana Tech and Brigham Young.