HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana football coach Ron Roberts tried to convey the message to his team before the season began about the potential pitfalls of their past success.
With shiny new credentials that included the school’s first gleaming Southland Conference championship, first home FCS playoff victory and one-point quarterfinal loss, the Lions would no longer be viewed in the same light.
Gone were the days of a program fighting for viability and trying to turn the corner toward respectability.
It’s the new challenge Roberts feels his program must learn to manage — the ultimate show of respect when opponents are primed and ready and in some cases, exceed their own level of play.
“We have to handle expecting people’s best,” Roberts said.
Roberts felt the most recent example of that took place in last Saturday’s 24-23 last-seconds loss at Southeast Missouri, a team the Lions handled 45-7 a year ago at home.
“They played a little better than what we saw on film,” he said.
Instead of cleansing its palate following a loss to FBS member Tulane the week before, No. 11 SLU (2-2) will look to snap a two-game losing streak heading into Saturday’s Southland Conference opener at Incarnate Word (0-4, 0-1).
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Tom and Gayle Benson Stadium in San Antonio.
“We like competition,” SLU running back Rasheed Harrell said. “Everybody’s going to give their best. That’s what we expect. We’re not running from competition. We hope everybody brings it.
“We’re coming with our ‘A’ game.”
Incarnate Word, which is in its second season in the SLC, is still ineligible for conference honors and postseason play.
The Cardinals have struggled offensively since the loss of starting quarterback Trent Brittain to a season-ending knee injury. They’ve averaged four points and just over 200 yards of offense with Taylor Woods (33 of 72, 351 yards, 1 TD) and Breylann McCollum (16 of 39, 154 yards) splitting the quarterback duties.
“It’s conference play,” Roberts said. “It’s everybody’s opportunity to step up and play real hard and play a little better.”
UIW is coming off consecutive shutout losses to No. 1 North Dakota State (58-0) and Abilene Christian (21-0), which served as its first SLC encounter.
“They have talent all over the board,” SLU senior linebacker Drew Misita said. “Every week we’re going to play people that are capable of beating us. We have to play our game and have to execute and do our job. If we don’t, then we won’t win.”
SLU’s offense, led by senior quarterback Bryan Bennett, has tapered off somewhat during the team’s two-game skid.
After scoring 85 points in its first two games, the Lions have averaged 21 points since, the result of increased competition, turnovers and penalties.
“We have to execute and eliminate penalties,” Harrell said. “If we execute and do our jobs, we’ll be OK.”
SLU ranks either fourth or fifth in all of the SLC’s major offensive categories, producing 32 points and 436.8 yards per outing.
Bennett, who is third in passing and total offense, has completed 55 of 104 passes for 948 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Senior Devante Scott (14-293, TD), junior Xavier Roberson (12-148) and Jeff Smiley (11-152, TD) are the team’s top targets.
Senior safety Tyler Stoddard leads SLU’s top-rated scoring defense (19 points) with a team-high 35 tackles followed by senior linebacker Isiah Corbett with 31.
“I believe that everybody knows what’s at stake,” Harrell said. “I believe we’ll be focused. We’re going to take it one day, get better and progress every week.”