Despite 4-0 SLC start, Roberts leery of Central Arkansas

“We’re in the same spot we were last year, and at the end of the season, we’re sitting at home watching everybody going to the playoffs, so I think we’re fully aware of what the challenge is ahead of us.” Ron roberts, SLU coach

If being in first place in the Southland Conference standings wasn’t enough motivation for Southeastern Louisiana University’s football team heading into Saturday’s game at Central Arkansas, all Lions coach Ron Roberts said his team has to do was reflect on last season’s two-game stretch against UCA and Sam Houston State.

The Lions, No. 16 in the Sports Network Top 25 Poll and No. 17 in the FCS Coaches Poll, went into those games with a 3-0 record in SLC play but lost 34-14 to Central Arkansas at home and 70-0 at Sam Houston the following week and finished 5-2 in conference play.

Kickoff is 7 p.m. in Estes Stadium.

“We sat in the same spot last year,” said Roberts, whose team is 7-2, 4-0 in the SLC. “We sit there and we lose the UCA game and turn around lose the Sam Houston game, so I don’t think you’ve got to say any more to our guys than that. We’re in the same spot we were last year, and at the end of the season, we’re sitting at home watching everybody going to the playoffs, so I think we’re fully aware of what the challenge is ahead of us.”

Central Arkansas (5-4, 2-2) is coming off a 31-28 upset loss to Northwestern State and is tied for 24th in the FCS Coaches Poll. The loss was the first in November for the Bears since 2010.

The Bears are fifth in the SLC in scoring offense (33.4 points per game) and second in pass offense (342.3 yards per game) after a broken ankle ended starting quarterback Wynrick Smothers’ UCA career last month. UCA has relied on Ryan Howard (80-130-3, 1,087 yards, 10 TDs) and Taylor Reed (15-18-0, 178, 2 TDs, 27-73, TD rushing) under center since Smothers’ injury.

UCA’s Dezmin Lewis is sixth in the SLC in receiving yards per game (70.9) to go with four touchdowns, and Lewis (fifth, 4.8), Jatavious Wilson (8th, 3.9), Willie Matthews (ninth, 3.9) and Courtney Whitehead (10th, 3.8) are in the SLC’s top 10 in receptions per game.

“They’re real good,” Roberts said of Lewis and Whitehead. “I think those are the two guys that really make them go right now. They can go up and get the ball in traffic. They’re pretty impressive. They’re talented.

“They’ve obviously got our attention, and they’ve got us worried.”

The Bears, however, rank last in the league in rushing offense (124.8 ypg.).

“We’ll do the best we can to try to force them to do the things they’re obviously not doing well,” Roberts said. “I think the big key there is really just making sure we can eliminate the explosive plays, because that’s really what they’ve been doing, they’re making explosive plays with those wide receivers.”

The Bears will work against a SLU unit ranked first in the conference in scoring defense (21.1 points per game) and second in total defense (373 yards per game). Linebackers Drew Misita (50) and Cqulin Hubert (49) lead the team in tackles.

“They’ve got some speed rushers and they’ve got some pocket pushers, some combinations of both,” UCA coach and Baton Rouge native Clint Conque said. “We’ve got to try to create some space and throw the football and win a bunch of one-on-one matchups and be able to handle their blitz packages. It’s just an enormous challenge.”

Conque said another challenge is the SLU offense, which is fourth in the SLC in scoring (38.6 points per game) and second in total offense (474.1 yards per game). The group is paced by quarterback Bryan Bennett, who is third in the league in total offense (276.4 ypg.) and has 11 touchdowns rushing and 11 passing. Rasheed Harrell is eighth in rushing (52.3 ypg) with seven TDs, while Tony McCrea (56.1) and Jeff Smiley (52.0) are eighth and 10th in receiving yards per game.

“They’re very balanced, and you’ve got to attempt to try to stop the run and put them in uncomfortable situations, which has been very difficult for a lot of the opponents that they’ve played this year,” UCA coach and Baton Rouge native Clint Conque said.

“They moved the football on everybody, they’ve run the ball with some success on everyone.”

UCA, meanwhile, is second in the SLC in scoring defense (25.2 ppg) and fourth in total defense (384.3 ypg), led by ends Jonathan Woodard (34 tackles, seven sacks) and Markeith Gaines (27 tackles, 5.5 sacks).

“Those two guys on the edge are just really good players — their whole front is,” Roberts said. “I think their defensive front may be the best four in the conference, you know, when you put them all together. They’ve just done a good job of getting after the quarterback.”