HAMMOND — It may have sounded a bit harsh to take the brunt of the criticism.
When asked about the offense’s propensity for slow starts in four of the team’s past five games, Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Bryan Bennett stepped forward with his hand raised high.
“That’s my fault,” Bennett said. “Those guys are doing what they need to do. I’ve got to make sure and put us in the right situations. That’s why I’m focusing on playing mistake-free and putting us in good situations.”
During that stretch, the Lions have trailed once, were tied and held precarious four- and six-point leads, emerging with two wins and two losses.
With No. 8 Southeastern (5-2, 3-0 Southland Conference) hosting Central Arkansas (4-3, 3-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in a pivotal Southland Conference game with the league lead hanging in the balance, the Lions are hopeful of rectifying their recent first-half conundrums.
“We can’t put our finger on it,” SLU junior middle linebacker Herbert Harris said. “It’s on us to come out and play for four quarters and be dominant like we can, give it our all from start to finish.”
SLU averages 40.3 points, only behind UCA’s 42.3 in the league, but in what’s become a reoccurring theme, the Lions have struggled getting out of the gate with any regularity.
SLU is averaging 16 points in the first half of games and scored a low of three in running up a 28-3 deficit at Tulane. The Lions were tied at 10 in an eventual 24-23 loss at Southeast Missouri before breaking away and enjoying explosive second halves in wins over Northwestern State (30-22) and last week against Lamar (61-34).
“The thing I’m worried about more than anything are the self-inflicted wounds like dropping a ball or fumbling the ball,” coach Ron Roberts said. “(Those are) things that we need to eliminate early. That’s a part of execution. I’m not giving them a Vince Lombardi speech at halftime. They’re ready to go.
“Most of the time, it’s calming them down.”
SLU waited until the early portions of the fourth quarter a week ago before pulling away from Lamar, a task enhanced by a ground game that churned out a school-record 484 yards and tied another mark with seven rushing touchdowns.
SLU would like to a see a carryover from that game against a Central Arkansas team that’s one of three undefeated teams in the SLC (the other being Sam Houston State) and riding a three-game win streak following a 70-0 blowout of Houston Baptist.
The Bears, under first-year coach Steve Campbell, alternate quarterbacks with Ryan Howard being considered the better passer (998 yards, 11 TDs) with Taylor Reed (783 passing, 7 TDs; 183 rushing yards, 4 TDs) the better runner.
Senior Willie Matthews (5-foot-9, 189 pounds) leads the team with 374 yards rushing on 100 attempts and six TDs.
“They’re high scoring on offense,” Roberts said. “We’re pretty dad-gum good on defense. There’s a reason why we’re leading conference in total defense (310.1). Our guys are going to look forward to the challenge and see what they can do.”
Roberts commended UCA’s front seven as the strength of its defense and in particular junior defensive end Jonathan Woodard (6-6, 271) who is tied for the league lead in sacks and is second in tackles for loss.
SLU is third in the SLC in total offense (456.7) with Bennett ranking fifth in total offense (265.7), sixth in passing (204) and eighth in rushing (61.7). Senior wide receiver Devante Scott (27-562, three TDs) tops the conference in receiving yards per game (80.3)
“The name of the game is being able to execute for four quarters,” Bennett said. “No game is won in a quarter or a half. We’ve got to get out and put it all together from start to finish.”