Facing a Sam Houston State team that ultimately advanced to its second straight Football Championship Subdivision national title game, Southeastern Louisiana left Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas, in November seeing orange.
The Bearkats scored touchdowns on their first five drives en route to a 42-point halftime cushion, then added four more scores for a 70-0 romp.
“We knew we could do better,” Southeastern running back Xavier Roberson said. “We knew we had to finish strong.”
Rather than finish the first season of the Ron Roberts era with a whimper, the Lions responded from the Sam Houston blowout with double-digit victories over Stephen F. Austin and Nicholls State.
The late counter-punch helped Southeastern enter the winter feeling good about a 2012 that saw the Lions achieve a list of program milestones.
With a 5-2 mark in Southland Conference play and third-place finish in the league standings, Southeastern won more conference games than any SLU team since 1978 and enjoyed its highest perch in the conference since the program’s 2003 revival.
When the Southeastern coaches hit the Louisiana recruiting trail, they could point to the school’s first sweep of in-state rivals Nicholls, McNeese and Northwestern since 1972.
“It gave us some momentum in recruiting and going into the offseason,” Roberts said of last year’s achievements. “Hopefully we can build off that and take the next step.”
Rest assured, Roberts expects more in his second year.
“We had a little bit of success, but that’s over and done with,” he said. “I think our aspirations are to do a lot better than we were last year.”
Even though Southeastern lost a pair of veteran quarterbacks in Nathan Stanley and Brian Young, the potential for an upgrade at the position is one of the reasons the Lions like their chances.
Junior Bryan Bennett transferred from Oregon after playing in 18 games for the Ducks as a backup. During the Lions’ first preseason scrimmage, Bennett went 9-of-11 for 255 yards and three touchdowns, and the California native is known as much for his ability to tuck and run.
“I can’t wait to show him off,” Roberson said. “I can’t wait until the fans see him.”
A veteran roster that includes 17 returning starters (the big loss was cornerback Robert Alford, a second-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons) should help Bennett get acclimated.
Roberson and Rasheed Harrell, forced into action as freshmen last year, lead an offense that looks to become more physical. Linebacker Kaleb Muse (a team-high 80 tackles) and cornerback Todd Washington (27 tackles, nine pass breakups) spearhead a defense that includes 18 juniors and seniors in the two-deep.
The work of strength coach Brandon Howard, who came aboard midway through the 2012 season, is paying dividends. The Lions have 11 players listed at 300-plus pounds and five more at 290-plus.
“When they’re under the bar and they’re setting up for a bench, a squat or a power clean, they know it’s time to lock in,” Howard said. “It allows them to maintain that game-like mentality where you have to lock your mind in and really push.”
The Lions, who went 1-6 in the Southland each of the two seasons before Roberts’ arrival, hope the results in the weight room will help them continue their ascent in the league standings. Matching last year’s achievements, Roberts said, won’t be good enough.
“I’m excited about where we are right now,” he said. “We’ve just got to get on the field and prove we’re a better football team.”