HAMMOND — Following last week’s utterly disappointing loss to Nicholls State, a pair of Southeastern Louisiana seniors, tight end Bransen Schwebel and right guard Alfred Beverly returned to the turf of Strawberry Stadium, almost certain that they'd just played their last home game and quite possibly the final game of their college careers.
The 28-27 defeat had cost the Lions the Southland Conference championship and put their FCS playoff status in doubt.
“I just sat on the bench and looked around,” Beverly said. “Man, it just hurt.
“I got really emotional thinking about it.”
Schwebel was of the same mindset.
“I thought maybe we’d blown it,” he said. “Maybe we’d get in, but we’d be on the road.”
And even after he was proven mistaken a couple of days later, Schwebel could scarcely believe it.
“They showed the playoffs and said it was in Hammond,” he said of Sunday’s pairings announcement. “I thought they’d gotten it wrong or something.”
But they hadn’t.
Southeastern (7-4) is not just in the playoffs but is playing host to Villanova (9-3) in a first-round game Saturday.
The Wildcats are the higher-ranked team — No. 10 in the final coaches poll to No. 24 for the Lions — but because of a stronger financial bid, SLU landed the home field.
“Our university really stepped up on this,” second-year SLU coach Frank Scelfo said. “It was an investment in belief in our program.
“It speaks volumes for our support.”
This is SLU’s first playoff appearance since 2014 and just the third in the program’s history, meaning none of the current players have advanced to the postseason at this level.
It also represents a reversal of last year’s 4-7 record that ended with a 44-0 blanking at the hands of Nicholls State that might not been as close as the score indicated.
“That was as bad as it’s gotten in my coaching career, and I swore that night it was never going to happen to us again,” Scelfo said. “Our players didn’t want that either.
“We got everybody pulling in the same direction, and now there’s an entirely different vibe around the locker room. I think I knew since last summer there was a special vibe and we were going to be fine.”
Villanova, which finished third in the Colonial Athletic Association, has much more playoff history than SLU, 12 previous appearances including a national championship in 2009.
But the Wildcats’ last playoff berth was in 2016, which was also the last of Andy Talley’s 32 seasons at the Philadelphia school. They were 5-6 in each of the first two seasons under longtime assistant Mark Ferrante.
“We’d gotten used to going just about every year,” Ferrante said. “So it felt like a long time for us.
“But we had a lot of injuries the last two years. We’re thrilled to get back in the postseason.”
After the two sub-.500 finishes, not much was expected of Villanova this year. The Wildcats were picked eighth in the 13-team CAA.
But junior quarterback Daniel Smith, a transfer from Campbell College who did not join the team until preseason drills, earned the starting job and has given the Wildcats a major lift with 31 touchdown passes plus 11 rushing.
Against rival Delaware last week Smith threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns while running for another TD in a 55-33 victory.
“You never know what’s going to happen with a transfer situation, especially because we don’t have many,” Ferrante said. “But the team really accepted Dan from the start, and he fit right into what we wanted to do on offense.”
With Smith in control, Villanova ranks second in the CAA to league champion and No. 2 national seed James Madison with 36.6 points and 451.8 yards per game.
Scelfo compared Smith to Incarnate Word quarterback Jon Copeland, whom the Lions held to 147 yards passing and minus-19 rushing this year, although the Cardinals used six SLU turnovers to win 27-21.
“He’s very active,” Scelfo said. “We’ve got to get pressure on him, and hopefully force some turnovers.
“But he gets the ball out very well and doesn’t get sacked very often.”
Southeastern has also been productive offensively with an SLC-best 36.6 points (the same as Villanova) and 473.8 yards per game. Plus, the Lions are allowing an average 24.1 points and 389.5 yards, comparable to Nova’s 370.8 and 24.5.
“They look very athletic on film with a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball,” Ferrante said. “The main thing to remember is that in a game like this, you can’t just show up and hope good things happen.
“You’ve got to minimize your mistakes, especially in taking care of the football. Whoever plays the cleanest game usually wins.”
The winner of this game travels to No. 6 national seed Montana for next week’s round of 16. But the Lions could be back home again for the quarterfinals if they should get that far.
At this point, though, the idea is to just win and advance.
“If you’ve ever been part of this in high school, you know what a cool feeling it is to know that as long as you keep winning there’s going to be another game,” Schwebel said. “If you don’t win, then it’s over.
“We’ve had a complete turnaround from last year. And we’ve got a bunch of guys who aren’t ready for it to end.”