The Southeastern Louisiana Lions stand out in my mind for exactly three reasons, which are (in order of importance) 1. They play TCU this week. 2. Their home field is named "Stawberry Stadium." 3. Hal Mumme coached here a couple of years when the school revived its program in 2002 after about fifteen years without football. I only learned numbers two and three above after digging around online for info about the Lions to write this preview. (Somebody please find and wear a "Strawberry Shortcake" t-shirt to the game, maybe with a giant horned frog devouring her (or it? What the heck is a common dessert doing as a kids toy anyway, and how did anyone convince others to spend real money for it? Why can't I think of such lucrative stupidity? And no, this blog doesn’t count, because of that little word lucrative.) to restore masculinity to the wearer.) Oh-- back to football.
Wait—first the scandal. (Scandal!) SLU had a frightfully incompetent compliance office for the early 2000s, and recently admitted that it mistakenly cleared over 100 ineligible players to play in several sports. (This may not include football players; the school isn’t saying). Bart Bellairs, the SLU AD said, "In many instances, student-athletes would have been eligible had proper procedure been followed, such as timely declaration or change of a major." SLU issued a report saying no evidence suggests SLU recruited athletes who weren't in good academic standing. SLU says it will impose penalties on itself (reducing scholarships, vacating victories, putting itself on probation) and hope the NCAA doesn’t bring the hammer down just as the football program is emerging from a dismal decade.
OK—back to football. Last year's SE Louisiana stats are a snapshot; they don't show direction. But the snapshot is ugly.
The Lions gave up almost 35 points per game last season, almost twice as many as they scored. They had a poor ground game, averaging under three yards per carry, and gaining only 54 rushing first downs all year. The Lions gave up 4.5 yards per carry and 95 rushing first downs. The team's third down conversion rate was a paltry 33%.
In the air they were slightly better, completing over half their passes, and averaging 11.5 yards per catch. SE Louisiana held its opponents almost to those same numbers, but gave up almost twice as many passing touchdowns as it scored (20 given up; 11 scored).
The Lions did average about 20 yards per kick and punt returns, but also fumbled the ball away about once per game.
What about the most important statistic: wins? The Lions went 5-6 last season, beating expectations by a mile. Head coach Ron Roberts's inaugural season in Hammond was a smashing success compared with all the losing that had gone on before he arrives. There's plenty of reason to expect his second season will feature continued improvement, even though his conference peers rank his team right in the middle of the pack in its conference (which is... checking... the Southland Conference). SLU finished third in the conference last season, so the pre-season voters expected a second-hand retreat for the turnaround Lions.
The Lions have a young backfield, but are generally pretty experienced elsewhere. They're bigger, too. Head coach Ron Roberts said before fall camp that increasing his team's size was a primary goal after last season's 5-6 finish. At the start of 2012's fall camp, the coach said only two Lions weighed 300-plus pounds. This season 16-18 players are expected to hit that threshold when they report. "They’ve done their part," Roberts said. "Throwing the football is all pretty and nice, but you still win football games by being physical at the line of scrimmage and being able to run the football and stop the run. We’ve gotten more physical through conditioning and recruiting, and that’s going to help us this fall."
The line of scrimmage this year will be led on offense by three seniors: Gasten Gabriel (LT, 6-5, 310), Geremy Wilson (LG, 6-3, 295), and Marshall Paris (C, 6-2, 295). Gabriel has twice been all-conference. Freshman RG Taylor Romero (6-2, 280) and junior RT Jonathan Braddock (6-4, 275) start on the right side. The left side is fairly solid-- Gabriel, Wilson, and Paris have over 60 starts between them. Gabriel is one of the team leaders, and one of the few pre-season all-conference picks for the Lions. Romero and Braddock are new starters; Romero beat out a junior (D.J. Williams, 6-5, 320) for the starting nod. In the team’s final scrimmage this fall, they allowed ten sacks. (If Gary Patterson allows Devonte Fields to play against SLU, Frogs o’ War expects at least ten sacks on Saturday, half from Fields.) Brian Bennett’s run-first play is part of that outrageous stat, and also improved play from the defensive line. Last season no Lion had more than two sacks; defensive end Scott Korte matched that in the scrimmage.
The big guys are a key to the team’s success because SLU is a rushing team, primarily. In its first game, it ran 68 plays-- 50 of them rushes. The top returning rushers Xavier Robertson (5-9, 280) and Rasheed Harrell (5-10, 185) are both sophomores; Harrell leads the two-deep for the opener; Robertson and junior Kody Sutton (5-8, 195, transfer from Wyoming) are the backups. Junior Jeremy Meyers (6-3, 225) has moved to fullback. Quarterback Bryan Bennett carries the ball as often as any of the other backs.
Offensive coordinator Greg Stevens hopes that Bennett is the key to extending its turnaround that got underway so rapidly last season. The Oregon dual-threat transfer is the most talented player on the team, by a long stretch. He’s experienced, playing for his third season. "I’m going to take what the defense gives me," Bennett said. "We also have backs that can do it, so if they don’t let me run, then they have to deal with those backs. A couple of times [Southeast Missouri] dropped some guys into the back end and it opened up the middle and I was able to go in and score."
When he’s not scrambling, he'll be throwing to upperclassmen receivers, four of whom were in the team's top six producers at wideout last season. Senior Tony McCrea (5-10, 175), senior Marquis Fruge' (6-0, 200), sophomore Jeff Smiley (5-9, 175), and junior Chris Malott (6-5, 220) are the first team. Last year's fourth most productive receiver for the Lions was Jeremy Meyers, who now lines up in the backfield. In their first game this season, the Lions spread the ball around remarkably evenly. Jeremy Meyers, DeVante Scott, Tony McCrea, Chris Malott, Jeff Smiley, Kendrick Peeples, Marquis Fruge, Jarrell Bennett, and Kody Sutton each caught a pass-- but no one hauled in more than two. Malott's catch was a highlight-reel tumbling head-over-heels play.
Bennett appears to have made himself pretty comfortable in Hammond. "I can’t wait to show him off," head coach Ron Roberson said of his new triggerman this fall. "I can’t wait until the fans see him." By the opener, Bennett became the focus of the Lions' offense, throwing or running with the ball in almost half of the offensive snaps (12 carries—the most on the team—for 117 yards and three touchdowns, and passing 9-for-15 for 169 yards).
Defensive Coordinator Pete Golding’s defense was execrable last season. In 2012 the Lions couldn’t stop anybody, despite fielding NFL draftee Robert Alford at cornerback. In 2013, through exactly one game, the crew (staffed largely by returning players) appears substantially stouter. The team plays a 3-3-5 that does not feature a single freshman on its two-deep. Through one game, its tackles were spread evenly through the back eight (only one lineman, junior end Jacob Newman, had multiple tackles, one sack, and a tackle for loss).
Junior linebackers Drew Misita and Kaleb Muse lead the second level (Muse led the team in tackles last season with 80). Both are thick—Misita is 6-1 235, and Muse is 6-0 250. Isiah Corbett is the third starting linebacker, and Texas Tech transfer Cqulin Hubert is Misita’s backup.
The secondary expects to miss Robert Alford’s production, but his replacement, sophomore Harlan Miller, is speedy and had an interception last week. The other corner, Todd Washington had two PBUs. Junior free safety Tyler Stoddard is all-conference every year, and has a nose for the ball; he’s tallied over 150 tackles in two seasons. Senior "Lion" safety John Graves, and senior "Ram" safety Kevin Harmon round out the starting five in the secondary.
Punter Matt McCormick only had one chance to punt last week, while kicker Ryan Adams averaged over 62 yards per kickoff (in eight tries). The coverage teams shone. Harlan Miller and Xavier Roberson had three big returns-- Miller's on punts (44 and 21 yards) and Roberson on the opening kickoff (65 yards). "I give credit to the guys up front," Miller said. "I’m back there by myself so it’s up to them to protect me and they did their job tonight. They got me the ball in my hands and we made better field position for the offense to score."
So what are chances TCU becomes the third Big 12 team to lose to a 2-A team this month? Slim, but not none. Its talent level is substantially lower than TCU’s, but SLU comes to Fort Worth brimming with confidence. The Lions will try to confuse Pachall and Boykin with their 3-3-5 defense, and occasionally will succeed.
But TCU is capable blowing through the Lions’ defensive line, and should make Bryan Bennett one-dimensional (and very grass-stained). Note the qualifiers there—"capable" and "should"—instead of "will" and "will." I’m not ready to say the Horned Frogs are going to clobber the Lions. I don’t see play-to-win play calling; I don’t see TCU spreading the ball around; I don’t see TCU playing to its strength- its backfield.
I don’t see the Frogs outscoring SLU by 42 points (a ridiculous point spread, given the timid showing in Arlington on Saturday). I think the Frogs win, and play a lot of twos and threes, but I think the game will feature as many stupid moments as highlights. Maybe the team and coaches will find a killer frog in them in time for the game in Lubbock.