HAMMOND — Southeastern Louisiana coach Ron Roberts doesn’t mind winning another Southland Conference championship from the pole position. It’s worked for the Lions in each of the past two years.
“I’d rather start in front and try and lead,” Roberts said. “Hopefully we’ll get that done. This is huge. Whoever gets this starts from the front and everyone plays catch-up. That’s where you want to be.”
Roberts refers to Saturday’s trip by No. 17 SLU (3-1, 2-0) to No. 13 McNeese State (4-0, 3-0) for a 6 p.m. kickoff at Cowboy Stadium as “Separation Saturday” matching two of the league’s three remaining undefeated teams.
The game will be televised by CST.
“This is going to be a huge game,” SLU offensive tackle Pierson Villarubia said. “They’re always very good, well coached with good athletes. This game will pay dividends with what happens at the end of the season with who’s going to the (FCS) playoffs.”
The SLC’s other unbeaten team — Central Arkansas (2-2, 2-0) — travels to Houston Baptist (2-3, 0-2).
Roberts said the game’s outcome transcends the conference’s standings.
“It’s an in-state rivalry that’s not just about conference but about recruiting and in-state bragging rights,” said Roberts, whose is 3-0 in his career against the Cowboys.
McNeese, which has outscored its past two opponents 74-7, hasn’t slowed down since a season-opening cancellation at LSU in which the Cowboys forced the Tigers to punt on their lone offensive series.
That defense, led by safety Dominique Hill, is atop the conference in four major categories — points allowed (6.8), rushing yards (76.2), passing yards (170.2) and total defense (246.5).
Moreover, they’ve been a disruptive force with 43 quarterback hurries, 15 sacks and 42½ tackles for loss, led by Hill with seven.
“They’re a lot like us, they’re multiple. They’re going to do a lot of things,” Roberts said. “They’re not going to sit in the same look and give you certain things. They do a great job. They’re the best defense we’ve seen.”
McNeese also features the league’s top offensive threat in senior quarterback Daniel Sams, a Kansas State transfer.
Sams is tops in the league in total offense (251.2), passing for 164.8 yards and serving as the Cowboys top rushing threat at 86.5 yards.
“I played him in high school and he knows how to get around the edge,” SLU linebacker Dereck Robinson, who prepped at Destrehan. “They’re a good team. We have to execute our calls and stay gap sound.”
SLU looks to ride a wave of momentum created with the conclusion of last week’s 30-27 victory over Lamar.
Quarterback D’Shaie Landor directed a 17-play, 71-yard drive in the final eight minutes which Kody Sutton capped with a 1-yard run on fourth down with 1:19 left.
“This is a big game for us,” McNeese coach Matt Viator said. “It’s a big game early in the conference season. Without a doubt, Southeastern has by far been the best team in the league the last two years.”
SLU’s run-heavy approach, which averages a SLC-best 252 yards, figures to get quite a test from McNeese’s top-rated run defense.
Senior Xavier Roberson (45-212, 2 TDs) and Sutton (61-194, three TDs) lead a balanced rushing attack that is expected to have redshirt freshman Julius Maracalin (19-140) back from a two-game absence because of injury.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” Robinson said. “I hope they make us play our best game to see where we’re at and we’ll see who the best team is. It’s going to be a real intense game.”