Sam Houston State’s struggle on the road followed them to Hammond, La., as Southeastern Louisiana overtook the Bearkats in the second half for a 34-21 win and their first bid in the NCAA FCS Division I Playoffs.
Quarterbacks Brian Bell and Brian Bennett sparked a first half shootout in which the Bearkats went into the locker room with a 21-17 lead. Yet, second half turnovers afflicted SHSU’s offense for Southeastern to clinch their first Southland Conference title.
Although Bell complemented the Bearkats’ first half production with three passing touchdowns, SHSU head coach Willie Fritz said Saturday’s loss stems from Bearkats inability to close out the first half on defense.
Trailing 21-10 in the closing minutes of the second quarter, Bennett, a former backup quarterback at Oregon University, strung together a series of completions to receiver Jeff Smiley to SHSU’s 7-yard line. With 15 seconds left on the clock, Bennett connected with Marquis Fruge’ in the end zone to narrow SHSU’s lead 21-17 at the end of the half.
“That quarterback (Bennett) is really good. He gets the offense going,” Fritz said. “The big key of the game was that we didn’t close out the first half. We closed the first half poorly and started the second half poorly.”
Bennett and company’s opening drive to start the third quarter was short lived as Bennett sniffed out running back Xavier Roberson in open field for a 62-yard completion for their first lead of the game 24-21.
However it wasn’t Bennett’s second half performance that troubled SHSU, Southeastern Louisiana’s defense headed by linebacker Isiah Corbett and defensive back Kevin Harmon bullied SHSU’s pass scheme.
Bell struggled to rekindle his first half production in the air as three consecutive offensive drives closed with a punt. Southeastern countered SHSU’s stagnant offense with a touchdown drive at the end of the third quarter to take a 31-21 lead.
Bell responded and carried the Bearkats into the red zone, targeting senior receiver Torrance Williams for 35-yards on the drive. Situated on the Lions’ 20-yard line, Bell dropped back for a screen pass intended for running back Timothy Flanders that was picked off by Corbett and returned for 61 yards to SHSU’s 19-yard line.
“When you play a quality team like [Southeastern Louisiana] it comes down to who can make the least amount of mistakes and who makes the most big plays,” Fritz said. “They made less mistakes and made more big plays than we did.”
SHSU’s defense stifled Roberson on the ground to force a 31-yard field goal to extend Southeastern Louisiana’s lead 34-21.
SHSU’s following drive bulldozed into the Lions’ red zone with Bell connecting with receivers Gerald Thomas and Williams, before ripping through Southeastern’s front seven for a 24-yard rush. Bell took a hit that removed him from the rest of the game with a shoulder injury, as freshmen quarterbacks Don King III and Jared Johnson interchanged under center.
Harmon picked off King for the Bearkats second turnover inside the red zone on a fly route to the corner of the end zone for a touchback.
“There’s a possibility of 14 points there that could swing it the other way,” Fritz said. “Anytime you turn the ball over it’s not good but when you do it inside the red zone it’s really not good for you.”
Johnson stepped in to spark late game momentum following King’s second drive, yet SHSU’s offensive line couldn’t hold off the Lions’ pass rush to give the freshman quarterback time to work the pocket.
SHSU’s playoff hopes hinge on Saturday’s matchup against Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark. Currently the Bearkats are third in league standings behind Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State, with the Bears a game behind.
“We’re going to have to play our tails off this week against Central Arkansas up there,” Fritz said. “I feel like if we win that ballgame we get into playoffs.”