THIBODAUX — The first year of the Ron Roberts era at Southeastern Louisiana came to an end in promising fashion Thursday night as the Lions took down in-state foe Nicholls State 35-16 to win the River Bell Classic.

The win doesn’t just give SLU a shiny new prize for the trophy case back home. It also gave the Lions their fifth Southland Conference win of the season, marking their best finish since re-joining the league in 2005.

Roberts’ goal from Day 1 was to turn the program the around and establish a winning mentality in Hammond. Thursday seemed to be another step in the right direction.

“I’m excited about the direction we’re going,” Roberts said. “I’m not going to say we’re where we want to be. When we’re playing and we’re the last one playing, that’s when we’ll say we’ve arrived. It gives me a lot of hope and excitement for the future that we’re still very untapped.”

Thursday night, two of Roberts’ young players shined again. The dynamic tandem of freshman running backs, Xavier Roberson and Rasheed Harrell, paced the Lions’ rushing attack again, combining for 164 yards.

SLU (5-6, 5-2) flashed a balanced offensive attack, throwing for 163 yards and running for 160, answering every punch Nicholls (1-9, 0-7) landed with a haymakers of their own.

The Lions built a 21-3 lead early in the third quarter, though the Colonels showed some signs of life late in the game.

Nicholls kick-started the fourth quarter by forcing a Harrell fumble, which was recovered by defensive tackle Cole Frazier. Five plays later, Colonels running back Marcus Washington scored from the 3-yard line, but the Lions blocked the extra point to hold a 21-9 advantage.

SLU answered quickly, as Roberson returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for a score to pad the lead, 28-9.

“We talked about that early on, that when people saw us play, hopefully they saw someone that was physically tough, mentally tough and a team that enjoyed playing and played with a lot of passion,” Roberts said. “I think we accomplished that.”

The fourth quarter turned into a something of a slugfest, as Nicholls fired back on its next possession. Quarterback Landry Klann tossed a 38-yard touchdown pass to senior wideout Andrew Wynn to cut the lead to 28-16.

Yet again, the Lions answered.

Sophomore linebacker Kaleb Muse stripped the ball from Klann on Nicholls’ next drive, and SLU recovered and began running down the clock. The Lions tacked on another touchdown on a 19-yard fake-field-goal pass from senior punter Beau Mothe to sophomore tight end Jeremy Meyers, securing the 35-16 win.

“We finally got to run our fake field goal we’ve been trying to run all year,” said Meyers, who caught another touchdown pass early in the third quarter. “Beau gave me a decent ball to go up and get, and I went up and got it. I was excited. It was awesome.”

The first half had the potential to be as tight as the second half was, but Nicholls fumbled on a fourth-and-1 play from the 1-yard line, and SLU took over with 99 yards to cover.

The Lions did just that in 12 plays, finishing the drive when Harrell punched it in from 3 yards out for the first of his two scores.

SLU loses 16 seniors this season, but will return a wave of underclassmen next year. With a new coach and a few new faces, Roberson said, the Lions’ future looks bright.

“It feels great,” Roberson said. “My first year here, coach Rob’s first year here, we’re doing some special. It feels good to be here and be a Lion. We’ve just got to grind hard this offseason and come back.

“Next year, we’re going to have a ring — for sure.”