HAMMOND — Thanks to another strong finishing kick, Southeastern Louisiana put away another Southland Conference opponent and gained a measure of distinction after eight weeks of play.
Southeastern’s 41-24 victory over Central Arkansas, coupled with McNeese State’s 31-27 win against Sam Houston State, left the Lions (6-2, 4-0) in sole possession of the Southland lead, the league’s lone undefeated team.
“I like to play from the driver’s seat,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said Tuesday at his weekly luncheon. “We’re sitting here in first and the only undefeated team. We’ve just got to take care of our business and make sure we play well this Saturday.”
Before No. 8 Southeastern can enjoy next week’s open date, the Lions must travel to face Stephen F. Austin (5-2, 3-1) in conference action at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“We know everyone wants to be where we are,” Southeastern’s Xavier Roberson said. “We have a target on our back. The thing is we control our own destiny. We can’t take anyone for granted because everyone is coming out to play hard, like it’s their last game.”
The latest example of that was the determined effort put forth by Central Arkansas (4-4, 3-1), which fell a game behind SLU in the standings.
UCA took a 10-7 first-quarter lead and appeared headed for more when Southeastern’s defense intervened with several key plays.
LSU transfer Micah Eugene delivered the first momentum-changing play, forcing a fumble at the end of a 13-yard run with a vicious hit, which freshman lineman Anthony Murphy recovered at the Lions’ 13-yard line.
Eugene was initially flagged for targeting on the play, which meant he would have been ejected with 3:34 left in the first quarter and the Bears maintaining possession — until the play was overturned by instant replay.
“Micah’s hit on their sideline’s about as big as it gets,” Roberts said. “That’s an unbelievable hit, and thank God for instant replay to get back to get the right call and get it corrected.”
Southeastern went ahead for good after Eugene’s exploits, taking a 14-10 lead with an eight-play, 89-yard drive that ended with Roberson’s 1-yard run with 24 seconds to go in the opening quarter.
Place-kicker Ryan Adams continued his hot streak with a pair of field goals from 19 and 43 yards to stretch SLU’s lead to 20-10 before the Bears closed to 27-24 on a 1-yard third-quarter run and a 15-yard run following a blocked punt with 6:11 remaining.
“We had some breakdowns in protection, some breakdowns in our operation time by our punter (Tim Callian),” said Roberts, whose punt suffered two blocked punts. “The two things together are disastrous, and you can’t do that.”
Southeastern quarterback Bryan Bennett responded on his team’s first play after the blocked punt with his third rushing touchdown of the game — a 75 yarder with 5:59 left — that was part of a 21-point fourth quarter.
Roberson added a 30-yard scoring dash with 3:03 to go, reversing his field on a sweep toward the middle of the field to account for SLU’s final score.
Despite having to reshuffle three offensive linemen — Joe Graves moved from left guard to center for an injured Ryan Cockerton; Taylor Romero played right guard in place of D.J. Williams (NCAA compliance issues); and Josue Miranda filled in for Graves — the Lions rushed 47 times for 289 yards and five TDs.
Bennett led the way with 14 carries for 131 yards and three TDs; Kody Sutton added 80 yards on 12 attempts; and Roberson 43 yards and two scores on nine rushes.
“I just kept faith in my team that we could make big plays and someone would step up and make a big play,” Roberson said. “The next drive, Bryan took it to the house, and that was pretty clutch and gained the momentum back, and we kept going hard.”
Senior linebacker Isiah Corbett, who ranks third on the team with 51 tackles, was added to the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List, symbolic of the top defensive player in FCS. ... With two interceptions against UCA, Denzel Thompson took the team lead with four. ... Bennett moved into 10th place on school’s career rushing list with 1,609 yards and is tied for second in rushing TDs with 28.