In postseason debut, Southeastern rises up late

As memorable as it gets: In the Lions’ postseason debut, receiver Jeff Smiley hauls in a 1-yard TD in the final minute to send SLC foe Sam Houston home for the winter

HAMMOND — The postseason dream lives on for the Southeastern Louisiana football team.

Thanks to a late touchdown from sophomore receiver Jeff Smiley, the Lions eliminated Southland Conference rival Sam Houston State 30-29 on Saturday night at Strawberry Stadium in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

In the quarterfinals, the No. 4 seed Lions will host New Hampshire at 6 p.m. next Saturday.

“Just a heck of a ball game,” Southeastern coach Ron Roberts said after his program played its first-ever postseason game. “I think our guys stepped up when they needed to most, and that’s what championship teams are made of.”

The loss for Sam Houston State ends a string of two consecutive title-game appearances.

“Game of some missed opportunities,” SHSU coach Willie Fritz said. “We had our chances to possibly seal the game, but we just didn’t get it done.”

With his team down by five with 1:21 left and no timeouts, quarterback Bryan Bennett led the Lions 85 yards on just six plays. The biggest one was a 1-yard touchdown pass to Smiley with just 36 seconds left.

“I just thought to myself, ‘We have to score here,’ ” said Bennett, who completed all six of his passes on the final drive. “We just had to keep believing in what we were doing, and we were able to get it done there in the end.”

Bennett completed 19 of 33 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns while leading all rushers with 83 yards on 19 carries.

The Southeastern defense kept Sam Houston State running back Timothy Flanders in check for much of the night, holding him to 3.9 yards per carry.

Led by senior linebacker and Southland Conference Defensive Player of the year Cqulin Hubert, the Southeastern defense stuffed the Bearkats on third-and-1 to force a punt and set up Bennett’s heroics.

“We just knew that if we could give Bryan back the ball, then he will make a play,” Hubert said. “We just went out there and executed our jobs.”

The Bearkats opened the scoring with the first chance they had: Senior receiver Torrance Williams motioned in to take a pitch from quarterback Brian Bell and beat the Lions defense to the edge for an 11-yard TD run.

They jumped to a 14-0 lead two plays later when cornerback De’Antray Loche intercepted Bennett’s first pass of the night and ran it the other way for a 12-yard score. It was Sam Houston State’s fifth interception return for a touchdown this season and the third for Loche.

After the Lions cut their deficit to seven following a 5-yard TD run by Bennett, the defense held the Bearkats to a punt on the ensuing possession. But returner Jarrell Bennett gifted SHSU the ball right back when he could not field the punt inside the 5-yard line and the ball bounced right into the arms of Sam Houston’s Dustin Moehlig.

Flanders capitalized on the great field position with a 3-yard touchdown run to put the Bearkats up 21-7 at the 1:35 mark of the first quarter.

“Every play when you are in a ball game like this is magnified,” Fritz said. “You have to play your best on every single one.”

But then the Lions offense found its rhythm.

After senior kicker Seth Sebastian knocked through a 25-yard field goal to make it 21-10, the Lions got the ball back at their 12-yard line following a Sam Houston punt.

With the long field in front of him, Bennett started the drive by connecting with Smiley for a 30-yard completion.

After a 13-yard scramble by Bennett moved the ball across midfield, SLU running back Rasheed Harrell took a handoff and found a hole after dancing between a couple of tackles for a 45-yard touchdown run to cap an 88-yard drive in just three plays.

Just before the halftime break, the Lions took their first lead of the game with a 14-yard touchdown reception by senior receiver Marquis Fruge’ to make it 24-21.

“It was really big when we went into halftime with all the confidence,” Roberts said. “Our thoughts coming out of the half were to try and end this thing in the third.”

But the Bearkats defense opened the second half by sacking Bennett in the end zone for a safety to pull within a point.

Sam Houston State retook the lead at the 10:58 mark in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard plunge into the end zone by Bell following a 57-yard run by Keshawn Hill.

“We don’t really collapse under pressure,” Bennett said. “Those are the types of moments that bring out the best in us.”