HAMMOND — Senior quarterback Bryan Bennett has worked his way toward the top of Southeastern Louisiana’s record books in a variety of categories with his right arm and legs.
Third-year SLU coach Ron Roberts has an appreciation of Bennett that outweighs his vast talent.
“To me, I’ve said it’s not about his athletic ability, it’s not whether he can throw or run,” Roberts said Tuesday during his weekly luncheon. “Maybe the most impressive thing about him is his mental toughness and the grit he brings every day.”
When his team needed him most — with an opportunity to remain in the race for the Southland Conference championship — Bennett showed that fortitude in a 28-9 victory over McNeese State.
No. 10 SLU (8-3, 6-1) looks to carry the momentum into Thursday’s regular-season finale at Nicholls State (0-11, 0-7). Kickoff at 6 p.m. Thursday in Guidry Stadium in the River Bell Classic.
The Lions can wrap up a share of their second straight Southland Conference title or claim it outright with a victory and a Central Arkansas win over Stephen F. Austin on Saturday.
“To be sitting here going into the last regular-season game and still have the opportunity to be a conference champion is an amazing feeling,” Bennett said. “I know coming in and having the opportunity go two for two in conference championships is awesome. Hat’s off to my team and our coaching staff, who has put in the work.”
A year ago, en route to leading SLU to its first SLC crown and FCS quarterfinal playoff game, Bennett played in all 14 of his team’s games despite a sprained knee ligament that lingered the entire season.
Moreover, Bennett played the final six to seven games of the season with a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand and still accounted for 4,211 yards of offense and 37 touchdowns.
Injuries have been prevalent during Bennett’s final season, first a shoulder injury that nearly sidelined him the entire Stephen F. Austin game.
Bennett came off the bench and tried to rally the Lions from a 17-0 halftime deficit, but couldn’t get the team any closer than 20-10 after getting intercepted at SFA’s 1-yard line midway through the fourth quarter.
The latest testament to Bennett’s resiliency occurred in last week’s victory when a foot injury suffered against Houston Baptist the week before left his status for the McNeese game in doubt.
Bennett didn’t practice and was confined to a walking boot the entire week, before not only delivering a rousing pregame speech, but delivering in the clutch.
“He’s the leader of this football team,” Roberts said. “Everybody’s going to look up to him; how he handles things and how he responds to situations and so far he’s been outstanding. In every situation I’ve put him into he’s responded the right way.”
Bennett not only started but went the distance, completing 10 of 18 passes for 185 yards and tied a career-high with four touchdowns.
SLU led 14-0 after first-quarter TD passes to Trey Hallman and Jeff Smiley. After McNeese closed to within 14-9, Bennett connected with Smiley on a scoring play from 28 yards out and added a 55-yard scoring strike to Devante Scott with 4:46 to play.
“I was still a little sore, but the pain’s a lot less getting a win under your belt,” Bennett said. “It would hurt a lot more if things hadn’t turned out that way.”
Roberts said All-American kickoff returner Xavier Roberson, who suffered an injury in the first quarter of the Houston Baptist game, had season-ending surgery on his foot to repair a Lis franc injury. He is expected to make a full recovery and participate in spring drills. … Former Episcopal standout Michael Henry is the leading rusher for Nicholls with 165 carries for 887 yards and six TDs. He’s also the second-leading receiver with 25 catches for 224 yards. … Junior linebacker Kameryon Brown of Southern Lab is the Colonels’ No. 2 tackler with 84 stops.