Between big games, Stephen F. Austin must take care of Abilene
For Stephen F. Austin, even with a spot in the STATS FCS Top 25 potentially at stake, this is the definition of a trap game.
Last week, the Lumberjacks went on the road and upset McNeese, one of two ranked teams in the Southland Conference. The other awaits them next week, facing No. 2 Sam Houston State and doing so on the grand stage of NRG Stadium - home of the Houston Texans.
In between is Saturday night's matchup with Abilene Christian, which heads into Homer Bryce Stadium at 0-3.
"Certainly their record is nowhere close to reflecting the quality of team that they are," Stephen F. Austin coach Clint Conque said.
That's not just coach speak. Abilene Christian has beaten the Lumberjacks each of the past two years.
Additionally, Conque mentioned how the Wildcats "had moments where they looked just fantastic" in a 37-21 season-opening loss at Air Force, an FBS bowl team the last two seasons. Abilene has followed with a pair of three-point losses, blowing a fourth-quarter lead against Northern Colorado before falling in overtime at Houston Baptist last Saturday.
"I think at times we've got some big-time weapons," said Wildcats coach Ken Collums, previously Conque's offensive coordinator at Central Arkansas. "... We've got some guns, but sometimes we're out of bullets or not firing it properly."
One of those weapons is De'Andre Brown, but the team's top rusher from the past two seasons has been hobbled by an ankle injury. He's carried the ball just six times for 15 yards and had to sit out last week's loss, but Collums is hopeful the all-Southland honorable mention will be back this week.
The timing of his potential return would add to the intrigue because Brown has been the difference in the last two meetings with SFA. In last year's 35-32 victory, he ran 16 times for 132 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning 20-yarder with 5:59 to play. His career high of 256 rushing yards along with three TDs came in a 37-35 victory at Homer Bryce in 2014.
"At least the last two years we've matched up well against SFA," Collums said. "Whether we do this year, I don't know."
His team is familiar with matching up against the Conques, the coach and his son, quarterback Zach Conque. He's totaled more than 500 yards passing and 200 rushing over the past two meetings, accounting for seven touchdowns.
The younger Conque is the reigning Southland offensive player of the week after throwing for 262 yards and two TDs while rushing for 63 yards and a score in the 31-28 stunner at McNeese, which was ranked 14th.
Yet, in a strange twist, he wasn't the one who led the game-winning drive. That was former walk-on Hunter Taylor, who hadn't thrown a pass all day until being sent on the field with SFA trailing 28-24 with five minutes to go. He proceeded to drive the Lumberjacks for the go-ahead score, a 4-yard pass to freshman Tamrick Pace.
The switch wasn't due to an injury or anything like that. Zach Conque later returned to the field and helped run out the clock.
"I was mad at him for missing a double-cut, wide-open receiver, woulda given us the lead in the series before," the elder Conque explained. "Just a gut feeling. We had made the decision after that previous series, well I made the decision actually. ... I just felt like we needed a shot of adrenalin right there, and Hunter responded."
There should be only one man under center for Abilene. That's emerging sophomore Dallas Sealey, whose passing yardage total has gone up every week. He's topped 300 each of the past two games while doing major damage on the ground with 163 yards and five TDs.
Sealey wasn't the starter for last year's matchup with SFA, a level of unfamiliarity which could be another potential road block on the Lumberjacks' possible path into the rankings. Last week's upset of McNeese in Lake Charles, Louisiana, garnered them the fourth-most votes (162) of any team not to make this week's STATS FCS Top 25.
"I know this, you don't go to Lake Charles on a Saturday night and beat the Cowboys. I mean, very rarely do people do that," Collums said. "And the Lumberjacks went down there and did it, and played a great game. It wasn't perfect, but man, they're competitors."