HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana officially ran out of chances in trying to preserve the championship mantra it established over the previous two years.
Now comes the hard part; moving forward to secure just the fourth winning season since the school resurrected its football program in 2003.
Southeastern Louisiana (4-4, 3-3) hosts Incarnate Word (4-4, 3-3) in Southland Conference action at 6 p.m. Saturday at Strawberry Stadium.
“There’s plenty of reasons to play,” SLU coach Ron Roberts said Tuesday during his media luncheon. “We have a college game to play Saturday and you’re doing something very few people have the opportunity to do; doing something you love.”
Consecutive losses to league-leading McNeese State and Stephen F. Austin placed SLU, the league’s two-time defending champion, in a precarious position of having to run the table in order to maintain any hope of reaching the postseason.
Those visions were halted last Saturday when SLU fell victim to some of the recurring themes that have been prevalent in their .500 season — falling 21-16 at Central Arkansas.
The Lions, who’ve lost their most conference games in three years, struggled in the red zone and were unable to force the Bears off the field in third-down situations.
“We played really well at times and the consistency factor’s just never been there, not well enough to win a championship,” Roberts said. “You’ve got to be consistent.”
The flashes were there from a ground game that produced 233 yards on 29 carries, led by former Plaquemine standout Julius “Juice” Maracalin’s game-high 11 carries for 118 yards and touchdown.
It was Maracalin’s 7-yard TD, following Donovan Isom’s 44-yard completion to Chris Briggs, that drew SLU to within 21-16 with 9:01 left to play.
“That was a heck of a run; second effort,” Roberts said of Maracalin. “We just had to go and get a stop; get an opportunity. We just didn’t get anything going. In the fourth quarter they kept the ball away from us when we’re mounting a comeback.”
SLU suffered its lone turnover of the game after pulling to within the final score.
Isom, who replaced starting quarterback D’Shaie Landor (injured sternum) was intercepted at the Lions’ 44-yard line with 2:13 remaining.
SLU answered a pair of first-half UCA touchdown drives with a career-high three field goals from redshirt freshman Jonathan Tatum, two of which came in the third quarter, to cut the Bears’ lead to 14-9 at the 5:52 mark of the third quarter.
The Lions defense, though, allowed a season-high 299 yards on the ground and surrendered a back-breaking 45-yard TD run on the second play of the fourth quarter, falling behind 21-9.
“We’ve got a guy there,” Roberts said. “He missed the tackle and he’s gone. It was pretty huge. We get a stop, we’ve got an opportunity. Those are plays you’ve got to make.”
SLU wound up converting just 2 of 13 third downs, while allowing UCA to make 10-of-19 such opportunities that enabled the Bears to run 25 more plays and hold a 14-minute edge in time of possession.
Moreover, Roberts lamented his team’s passing game that wound up with 114 yards on 8-of-25 passing, including Landor’s 6-of-18 effort for 44 yards.
“You can be optimistic all you want but after eight games you have to say what it is,” Roberts said. “The reality is we’re not throwing the ball with much efficiency at all.”
Roberts said he would get a better idea of Landor’s status for Saturday’s game during the week of practice. ... He also remained uncertain whether offensive tackles Aaron Reed and Pierson Villarubia would play against UIW after both missed their third-straight games last week. ... SLU will honor Rachel Ray Fitzgerald (softball) and Denise Kubena Wyninger (volleyball), the school’s newest Hall of Fame members, at halftime.