HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana coach Ron Roberts was quick to remind his team Sunday that all of their preseason goals are still attainable.
The one caveat, though, after Saturday’s 21-7 loss at No. 15 McNeese State, was the Lions have left themselves without any wiggle room in order to win a third straight Southland Conference title and reach NCAA postseason play for the second time in three seasons.
“I don’t think anything’s changed,” Roberts said Tuesday during his weekly luncheon. “Hopefully our guys have a sense of urgency. We don’t have that buffer zone where we’ve got one (game) to give up.”
No. 21 SLU (3-2, 2-1 SLC) returns to Strawberry Stadium for Saturday’s 7 p.m. homecoming contest against Stephen F. Austin (1-5, 1-3) one game behind co-leaders McNeese and Central Arkansas, who meet in a Southland Conference showdown Saturday in Conway, Arkansas.
“We’ve got to take care of our business and come out with the mentality we’re going to take every game as a playoff game,” said SLU defensive back Ryan Sigers, who had a career-high six tackles against McNeese. “There’s more of a sense of urgency. We’ve lost a conference game, but it’s not the end of the world.”
The conference loss five weeks into the season is the earliest for SLU during Roberts’ four-year tenure.
Two long plays helped facilitate McNeese’s 14-0 lead in the first seven minutes: a 57-yard pass completion that led to Daniel Sams’ 3-yard run on the Cowboys’ first series, and a 58-yard touchdown run by Ryan Ross.
“I thought the majority of the night our defense played well except for a couple of plays,” Roberts said. “We fell victim to the big play. It’s been the same story: big play on defense and turnovers on offense.”
Ross’ touchdown highlighted a recurring theme for SLU’s defense that had the play bottled up at the line of scrimmage. Not only did he bounce the play to the left, he pinballed off safety JQ Sandolph’s attempt to knock him down rather than wrap him up.
“We’re bringing more of an emphasis in practice this week of wrapping up all the way through the play,” Sigers said. “You have to stop the momentum of the running back and receivers.”
SLU’s defense allowed 187 yards in the opening quarter but limited McNeese to a late second-quarter touchdown and 182 yards over the final three quarters.
The Lions managed just 19 yards in the first quarter but pulled to within 14-7 on Xavier Roberson’s 1-yard run at the 13-minute mark of the second quarter.
Roberts lamented his team’s propensity for fumbling this season, which included two more against McNeese. The Lions managed eight first downs and were limited to a season-low 59 yards rushing on 28 attempts.
“I think our kids are in good spirits,” Roberts said. “They’re working their tails off. They’ve done what we’ve asked them to do. It’s just the two things that have plagued us over and over: the big plays on defense and turnovers on offense.”
Roberts said SLU’s leading receiver, Jeff Smiley, is out for the season with a torn ACL. Smiley finishes his career as the school’s eighth-leading receiver with 133 catches, sixth in yardage (1,737) and tied for third in receiving touchdowns (17). … Roberts said quarterback D’Shaie Landor, who didn’t finish the McNeese game, was expected to be OK, along with free safety Micah Eugene. … Roberts said defensive lineman Tupou Aleamotua will go through a concussion protocol of tests to determine his availability this week.