HAMMOND — A week after losing their grip on sole possession of the Southland Conference lead, Southeastern Louisiana returns from an open date to find its in an advantageous position to repeat as champion.
Plenty has transpired since Southeastern had its 15-game conference win streak snapped Oct. 25 in a 27-17 road loss to Stephen F. Austin, sending the Lions into a five-way clutter for first place.
With Southeastern (6-3, 4-1 Southland) rejuvenating over the weekend from a stretch of nine straight games to open the season, the picture for the homestretch gained some clarity with McNeese State (6-2, 4-1) and Sam Houston State (5-4, 4-1) joining the Lions atop the standings.
No. 14 SLU returns to Strawberry Stadium for a 3 p.m. Saturday conference matchup with Houston Baptist (2-7, 1-5) before welcoming No. 6 McNeese a week later.
“I think we’re sitting in a good position,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said Tuesday at his media luncheon. “This is what you want. You want to go into November with a chance to win a conference championship. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s a good situation to be in, and all the reasons are there for us to play great football.”
Roberts said last week’s open date provided a respite for a team stung by its first conference loss.
The Lions worked out briefly Tuesday and Wednesday but refrained from any full-contact practice while hitting the weights. The coaching staff was out on recruiting trail.
“We came off a bad performance — a game in which I didn’t think we played very well,” Roberts said. “Banging’s not going to solve that issue. It’s not a lack of desire to be good. They’re just worn out, and the best thing was to get away and give them a chance mentally to think about it longer. I didn’t want to put that behind them for a while and let it simmer.”
Roberts expects his team to as close to full health as it’s been since September.
The most positive news was on senior quarterback Bryan Bennett returning to the starting lineup from a shoulder injury that sidelined him all week leading up to the SFA game and into the first half.
Roberts said Bennett received medical clearance only to punt, which he did four times, but wasn’t expected to play quarterback until SLU fell behind 17-0 at halftime.
While senior Jordan Barnett, who made his first career start, completed 4 of 10 passes for 33 yards, Roberts said the blame for the Lions offensive woes were more of a collective effort.
The Lions were whistled for a season-high 16 penalties for 117 yards.
“Our first half of non-production on offense had little to do with Jordan,” Roberts said. “He missed two throws but I thought he made the right decisions. There were other problems with penalties, missed assignments and missed blocks. We weren’t getting control of the line of scrimmage, which is a credit to (SFA).”
Bennett provided his team with a lift in the second half, leading Southeastern to within 17-10 with 2:21 left in third quarter on Ryan Adams’ 45-yard field goal.
SFA countered with a field goal of its own, leading 20-10 early in the fourth quarter, when Bennett was picked off at the Lumberjacks’ 1-yard line. A 77-yard return on the play led to another touchdown with 3:23 left.
Bennett, who threw an 83-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Smiley with 2:24 to go, completed 8 of 15 passes for 186 yards and rushed eight times for 42 yards and another score.
“At halftime we needed a spark and needed something to liven things up, and we felt Bryan could do that,” Roberts said. “We weren’t sure how much throwing he was going to do, but he was going to run the offense and hand it off and maybe add that spark to the offense, which he did. We just got outplayed.”
Roberts said senior offensive tackle D.J. Williams, who started the team’s first seven games, will remain sidelined because of an NCAA compliance issue. ... Roberts also said he will use the rest of the week determine a punter from among Bennett, Barnett or Tim Callian. Bennett punted four times for a 45.8-yard average against SFA, while Barnett averaged 61 yards on two punts. Barnett, a senior who applied for a medical redshirt and sixth season, was denied by the NCAA, Roberts said.