HAMMOND — The status of the both star quarterbacks may be in limbo, but that won’t temper emotions when No. 10 Southeastern Louisiana hosts No. 11 McNeese State at 3 p.m. Saturday at Strawberry Stadium.
“Every in-state game’s pretty big, but historically the McNeese game has been a big rivalry,” SLU senior linebacker Justin Church said. “Up until last year, some of the more recent games had all come down to the wire.”
Whether SLU faces McNeese at full strength could be a game-time decision.
Southeastern quarterback Bryan Bennett, who is fifth in the league in total offense at 252 yards per game, injured his foot in the first quarter of last week’s 76-7 win over Houston Baptist and didn’t practice this week.
Roberts said earlier in the week it was possible Bennett could still start despite not practicing.
If Bennett can’t go, SLU will start either senior Jordan Barnett or sophomore Da’Shaie Landor who both took first-team reps in practice this week.
“I’m pumped about it and excited,” said Barnett, who passed for 233 yard and three TDs last week. “If my number’s called, I’ll be ready. This is what I’m here for, to play football and win championships.”
SLU will also be without All-American kickoff return specialist Xavier Roberson, who suffered a foot injury in the first quarter last week. Roberson’s special teams duties will fall to senior Devante Scott, the team’s leading receiver who is already handling punt-return duties.
During the tenure of Southeastern coach Ron Roberts, the Lions are 2-1 against McNeese with last year’s 41-7 road win matching the largest margin of victory since the school revived the football program.
Not only will SLU (7-3, 5-1) look to extend a two-game win streak against McNeese (6-3, 4-2), but the Southland Conference co-leading Lions are also looking to keep pace with Sam Houston (6-4, 5-1) which visits Houston Baptist.
The game will be televised by the Southland Conference Network.
“Obviously, it’s a huge game this week,” Roberts said. “There are huge implications for the conference race, (FCS) playoffs, the rivalry and it being an in-state game. You name it, and it’s a great reason for a great college football matchup. It should be a great game and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
McNeese hasn’t been devoid of major injuries this season and the uncertainty of starting quarterback Daniel Sams remained a constant throughout the week.
Sams, the team’s leading rusher with 102 attempts for 711 yards and two TDs, left last week’s 31-16 loss to Stephen F. Austin after re-aggravating a pre-existing hand injury suffered while at Kansas State.
“I think he’s going to play,” McNeese coach Matt Viator said. “He wants to play.”
McNeese State’s offense changes from Sams, who adds an element of the option, to Tyler Bolfing, who has started three games and completed 65 of 112 yards for 817 yards with four TDs and three interceptions.
McNeese has had a player — Sams or Derrick Milton — rush for 100 yards or more five times this season but Milton, a Mississippi State transfer, has been limited by injury the past three to four weeks.
“It’s a tough test for us,” Viator said. “It’s that time of year where it’s the second-to-last weekend of the season. We’ve still got a shot, and that’s all we want.”
Regardless of the moving parts in McNeese’s backfield, Roberts said with the league’s second-best rushing attack at 242 yards, the Cowboys present a formidable task to his defense which is second against the run at 112 yards.
“It would be huge with our ability to stop the run,” he said. “We’ve been very good against the run at times and when we’ve struggled is when people have run the football on us.
“That’s a huge matchup. We’ve got to be able to take away what they do best.”