The further you go in the postseason, the more it hurts when you lose and there indeed were plenty of tears to go around Saturday night in Strawberry Stadium, as the Southeastern Louisiana University Lions saw their magical 2013 season come to an end at the hands of New Hampshire.
Until the final gun sounded, there was still hope of yet another Hollywood finish for the Lions, as Javari Nichols swatted an extra point with just 47 seconds left. But, the game-tying or winning score didn't come this time around for head coach Ron Roberts and company, as they bowed out of the FCS playoff quarterfinals with a 20-17 defeat.
During the post game news conference, I'm not sure Roberts could have handled himself better. He reflected the disappointment of a great run coming to an end, yet was more upbeat and complimentary of what his team had accomplished in the big picture. Just two years before, the Lions were an absolute mess, finishing with a 3-8 overall record and a depressing 1-6 mark in the Southland Conference. The year before that, SLU was even worse, going 2-9 overall and 1-6 in the SLC. THIS is what you call a turnaround.
In his first year on the job in 2012, Roberts immediately made an impact, as the Lions posted a 5-2 conference mark. But, a 70-0 blasting at the hands of Sam Houston State proved SLU still had a way to go. The Bearkats went on to their second straight trip to the FCS national championship.
This season, SLU proved how far it had come, whipping Sam Houston 34-21 at home on November 16, before an incredible 30-29 second round playoff triumph over the Bearcats in Hammond three weeks later. The drive quarterback Bryan Bennett led to win that postseason affair was the stuff of legends, as he marched SLU 85 yards in, a blink-of-an-eye, 45 seconds. Was there even a defense there? Bennett's 2-yard touchdown strike to Jeff Smiley inside of a minute to play sent the message that the Lions could handle playoff pressure, even against a squad whose postseason experience dwarfed theirs.
As Roberts' second season came to a close Saturday night, there were plenty of wonderful things to reflect on. SLU won 10 straight games, finished 11-3 overall and dominated SLC play with a perfect 7-0 record. The Lions also cleaned house in the conference's postseason awards, as Roberts was named "Coach of the Year," Bennett won "Player of the Year" and gritty, senior linebacker Cqulin Hubert took home "Defensive Player of the Year."
Heck, even the Lions losses were impressive. They trailed then No. 24 TCU of the FBS just 17-14 at the half, before losing 38-17. SLU's other regular season defeat came the next week at South Dakota State, 34-26. The Jackrabbits also reached the second round of the FCS playoffs.
There are still things to work on and improve. SLU had two timeouts in its pocket late in the first half Saturday night against New Hampshire, yet let the clock run and run, before rushing into a fourth down incompletion at the Wildcats' 31-yard line. That led to no points for SLU, which certainly loomed larger as the game progressed. There was a 19-yard punt, a dropped pass on a long bomb that might have been a touchdown and after a remarkable 15-15 mark during the regular season on field goals, the Lions' kicker missed two very makeable ones in the playoffs.
Finally, the ENTIRE fan base and community needs to "Lion Up." Those who attended Saturday night were fantastic and made a ton of noise. But sorry, a crowd of 5,886 (roughly 1,600 short of capacity and about 1,000 less than the previous home playoff contest against Sam Houston State) for what was billed as "the biggest game in the program's history," is definitely disappointing. If the Lions are in this spot again, Coach Roberts and his players deserve Strawberry Stadium to be overflowing with humanity. It truly can make a difference.
But, things are progressing very quickly for SLU. If you haven't seen Bryan Bennett's simply unbelievable scramble and touchdown toss to Marquis Fruge against New Hampshire yet, please do yourself a favor and look it up. The jaw-dropping sequence earned Bennett the No. 1 play on ESPN's Sportscenter Saturday night, as he blended Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston to pull off the minor miracle. It's a moment Lions fans will be talking about for years to come and can reflect on with great promise. The former Oregon Duck still has one more year of eligibility left and his head coach is expected to haul in another strong recruiting class.
The future certainly looks bright in Hammond, America.
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