HAMMOND — Among the keepsakes around the Southeastern Louisiana players’ lounge has been the River Bell Classic trophy, which has resided there for the past three years.
Adorning those same walls are pictures of the senior classes that have come before to claim the 23-year-old symbol of the winner of the Southeastern-Nicholls State game — a rivalry that has took root in 1972, when the two programs first competed in the Gulf States Conference.
The series, which Nicholls leads 12-11, continues at 6 p.m. Thursday when No. 10 Southeastern (8-3, 6-1 Southland Conference) visits Guidry Stadium to face the Colonels (0-11, 0-7).
Southeastern needs a victory to secure at least a share of its second straight Southland championship. The Lions can also tie the all-time series and annex their fourth consecutive River Bell trophy, one short of their longest win streak in the series.
“It’s like a Super Bowl for us,” junior defensive end A.J. Bowen said of the trophy. “It’s been here for the two years I’ve been here and we want to continue to see it at Southeastern. Holding that trophy means a lot.”
Given the tumult of a winless season — something Nicholls hasn’t experienced since 1995 — the pursuit of the team’s first victory and River Bell trophy are expected to help push the Colonels to an emotional apex.
Nicholls has played its last eight games under interim head coach Steve Axman after Charlie Stubbs resigned after four seasons citing “major health reasons” following a 0-3 start.
Former Episcopal standout Kevin Henry leads Nicholls with 165 carries for 887 yards and six touchdowns to go along with 25 catches for 224 yards.
“I expect them to come into a rivalry game and play well,” coach Ron Roberts said. “They’ve overcome some obstacles this year in losing a coach. They have an interim guy who’s done a great job of keeping the pieces to the puzzle together and getting them to play hard. We have to make sure we’re focused and ready to play good football.”
Last week, Southeastern was the portrait of such a team.
The Lions built a 14-0 first-quarter lead against McNeese State and maintained a 14-9 edge going into the final quarter. They gained separation on a pair of Bryan Bennett touchdown passes ?? two of his four on the day — for a key 28-9 victory.
SLU has won six of its last seven games and could win the conference’s outright title with a Central Arkansas win over Sam Houston State (7-4, 6-1) on Saturday.
“Without a win over Nicholls, we can’t obtain the conference title,” said senior linebacker Isiah Corbett, whose 62 tackles are third-best on the team. “It’s the same routine this week and just tuning things up. We’re definitely not looking ahead. We’re focused on Nicholls. It’s an in-state rival game, so they’re going to bring their ‘A’ game.”
Bennett, despite a foot injury, passed for 185 yards and matched his career high with four touchdowns in last week’s win, giving him 2,095 yards and 17 TDs for the season.
Bennett also flashed his leadership qualities before practice Monday, reminding his teammates about the potential pitfall involved in not giving Nicholls its undivided attention.
A year ago, the Colonels, who had won four games, took a 14-13 lead over the Lions at Strawberry Stadium before Bennett ignited a 32-point third-quarter outburst with two touchdown that led to a 57-26 victory.
“Obviously Nicholls hasn’t had their best year, but that doesn’t mean we should expect anything to be given to us,” Bennett said. “They’re coming in fired up — and if we’re not ready, then anything can happen on any given day.
“We need to be prepared to do our jobs and put in the work as if we were playing any team. We need to come in there and execute and show them we’re executing at a high level of football.”