SLU opens Southland play at nationally ranked UCA

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HAMMOND, La. – The Southeastern Louisiana football team will face a tough test to open Southland Conference play, as the Lions travel to Conway, Arkansas for a 7:15 p.m. contest at No. 14/16 Central Arkansas on Saturday at Estes Stadium.

The Lions (0-2) will be looking to shake off a 28-23 loss to Bethune-Cookman last week, while the host Bears (1-1) hope to build off the momentum of last week’s 41-13 win at Murray State.

Southeastern has not started a season 0-3 since 2012 and has won all five Southland Conference openers under head coach Ron Roberts. The sixth-year SLU head coach knows his team will need to make big strides to keep those positive trends going.

“We had our chances to win last Saturday, but we had too many missed opportunities to beat a good team like Bethune-Cookman,” Roberts said. “We’ve learned some valuable lessons these first two weeks. Conference play is what really matters and we’ve got to find ways to win tight games.”

Southland Conference play is challenging each week, but an opener at UCA, which leads the all-time series, 7-3, is particularly daunting for the Lions. The Bears advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs in a 10-3 season a year ago. One of those 10 wins was a 45-10 victory over SLU in Hammond.

The Lion offense racked up 514 yards in the season opener at UL Lafayette under the direction of sophomore quarterback Lorenzo Nunez. With Nunez missing the last game, SLU was limited to 291 yards versus Bethune-Cookman. Nunez will be a game-time decision on Saturday at UCA.

No matter who is under center for the Lions, they will benefit from a strong running game. The Lions are averaging 270.5 yards per game on the ground, led by senior Eugene Bethea, who leads the Southland with 255 rushing yards to go with three touchdowns. Senior Juwan Dickey is the Lions’ top pass catcher with 14 catches for 157 yards.

Southeastern will face a UCA defense that is allowing 397.5 yards per game – numbers skewed by a 55-19 loss at FBS No. 19 Kansas State in the season opener. The Bears feature four first-team preseason All-Southland players on defense, including defensive backs George Odum and Tremon Smith.

“We’re facing another very good football team on Saturday,” Roberts said. “They graduated some guys on defense, but they’ve just reloaded. UCA is very sound defensively, extremely talented up front and doesn’t make many mistakes. We’ll have a big challenge ahead of us.”

The Lion defense has allowed 39.5 points and 422.5 yards per game thus far in 2017. Senior Max Lyons leads SLU with 20 tackles, while senior Sione Teuhema follows with 16 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and two sacks.

Teuhema and junior Tamarcus Russell have forced fumbles to their credit this season, while Lyons and senior Courtney Rutledge have one fumble recovery each. Senior Mayori Ellison has the Lions’ lone interception, while also leading the team with three pass breakups.

Southeastern will face a Bear offense that is led by senior quarterback Hayden Hildebrand. The preseason All-Southland signal caller has completed 76.7 percent (46-of-60) of his passes this fall for 484 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Junior Lester Wells (eight catches, 55 yards) and senior Brandon Cox (5-120) have been Hildebrand’s top targets. Sophomore Carlos Blackman leads the Bears with 166 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

“UCA is very efficient on offense,” Roberts commented. “It all starts with their quarterback, who is a really great player. He doesn’t make mistakes and doesn’t take sacks. They are physical up front and run the ball well.”

Southeastern has shown the ability to make big plays on special teams through the first two games. Sophomore Juwan Petit-Frere is averaging 30.9 yards per kickoff return with a touchdown, while Lyons has a 19.4 yards per punt return with a score. Senior Dillon Burkhard is perfect on field goals (3-for-3) and PAT’s (8-for-8).

“We feel we’ve let two wins get away from us to start the season,” Roberts said. “We’ve done some good things in spurts, but ultimately we don’t have the consistency we’re looking for. Conference play is where it really matters and we know the challenge ahead of us, as we start out against a team that’s No. 14 in the nation and probably belongs in the top 10. We’re excited about the chance to compete and play like the team we know we can be.”

Fans traveling to Conway should be aware of the new clear-bag policy at Central Arkansas. The new policy is detailed at www.UCASports.com.

Following Saturday’s game, Southeastern will return home to host Lamar for Military Appreciation Day next Saturday, Sept. 23 at Strawberry Stadium. All military personnel will receive a free ticket with a valid military ID for the 7 p.m. contest. For more information on Military Appreciation Day, contact the Southeastern Athletics Ticket Office at (985) 549-5466.

In addition, next Saturday’s game will also serve as the 2017 Hall of Fame game. This year’s class of Kari Yost (soccer), Cass Hargis (baseball) and Tommy Connors (football) will be inducted in a private ceremony before the game and will be recognized along with all other Southeastern Athletics Hall of Fame members in attendance at halftime of Saturday’s SLU-Lamar contest.

The game will be broadcast by the Southeastern Channel, which will offer a live video stream of the Lions-Cardinals battle via the Southland Digital Network at www.southland.org/live. The contest can also be heard on the Southeastern Sports Radio Network (KSLU 90.9 FM, Kajun 107.1 FM, The Highway 104.7 FM, WFPR 1400 AM), online at www.LionSports.net/listenlive and via the TuneIn Radio app.

Southeastern Louisiana (0-2, 0-0 SLC) at No. 14/16 Central Arkansas (1-1, 0-0 SLC)

Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 | 7:15 p.m. | Estes Stadium (9,000)

Series History: UCA leads 7-3

Last Meeting: Central Arkansas 45, Southeastern Louisiana 10 (10/29/16 – Hammond, La.)

Television: Eleven Sports Network

Announcers: Steve Sullivan and Fitz Hill

Radio: Southeastern Sports Radio Network (KSLU 90.9, Kajun 107.1, The Highway 104.7, WFPR 1400)

Announcers: Mark Willoughby and Allen Waddell

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