SFA begins 30th Southland Conference Season at No. 13 McNeese Saturday

SFA begins 30th Southland Conference Season at No. 13 McNeese Saturday

SFA Athletics

NACOGDOCHES, TX (Press Release)

Stephen F. Austin begins its nine-game Southland Conference schedule this weekend as the Lumberjacks will make the trip to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for a showdown with reigning champion McNeese Saturday, September 17th. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:06 p.m. from Cowboy Stadium as the game will air on the American Sports Network.

Saturday's Southland Conference opener for both Stephen F. Austin and McNeese will be televised on the American Sports Network, marking SFA's first appearance on the network this season and its third since ASN came on board with the conference last season. David Saltzman (play-by-play) and ND Kalu (analyst) will have the call of the game with Carly McCord on the sideline. The local affiliate for ASN is KTPN (The Z) out of Tyler-Longview, airing on Suddenlink 9 (SD) and 109 (HD) and over-the-air on channels 47.1 and 51.2. ESPN3 will also carry the game online at ESPN3.com and the WatchESPN app. The audio call courtesy of Rob Meyers will again be carried by Q107.7 FM and online at Q1077.com, as well as through the TuneIn app by following the Lumberjack Sports Network. 

Redshirt freshman kicker Storm Ruiz picked up the first individual accolade of his Lumberjack career this week, being named the Southland Conference Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance against West Alabama. Ruiz was perfect on the night in kicks, going three-for-three in both field goals and extra points and finishing with 12 points. He opened up the night drilling a career-long 44-yarder, then hit field goals of 32 and 30 yards while converting on all three PAT attempts. On the season, Ruiz is 4-for-4 in field goals, hitting a 43-yarder at Texas Tech in his collegiate debut, and is 5-for-5 in PATs.

2016 Record: 1-1 overall, 0-0 Southland Conference. Ranked 13th (Coaches)/11th (Media) in this week's FCS polls
Last Two Games: W vs. Tarleton State (33-3), L at Louisiana-Lafayette (30-22)
Head Coach: Lance Guidry (McNeese, 1995). First season at McNeese (1-1, .500)
Key Offensive Players:
• #4 James Tabary (So., QB): 44-of-67 (65.7%) for 491 yds. (245.5 avg.), 2 TDs
• #6 Ryan Ross (Jr., RB): 40 rushes for 195 yds. (4.9 avg.), long of 22; 8 catches for 43 yds. (5.4 avg.), long of 12
• #1 Kent Shelby (Jr., WR): 11 catches for 146 yds. (13.3 avg.), long of 20
• #19 Parker Orgeron (Fr., WR): 7 catches for 79 yds. (11.3 avg.), long of 35
• #2 Darious Crawley (Jr., WR): 5 catches for 73 yds. (14.6 avg.), 2 TDs, long of 35
Key Defensive Players:
• #55 Jammerio Gross-Whitaker (Jr., DL): 14 tackles (8 solo), 1.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH
• #2 Erik Jones (Jr., DB): 9 tackles (6 solo)
• #49 Ashari Goins (Jr., LB): 9 tackles (3 solo)
• #24 Damion Morgan (Jr., DB): 8 tackles (2 solo)
• #92 Chris Livings (So., DE): 3 tackles (2 solo), 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF
Synopsis: McNeese enters the weekend at 1-1 on the year, defeating Tarleton State 33-3 in hits home opener before falling to rival Louisiana-Lafayette 30-22 this past weekend. The Cowboys are averaging 27.5 points and 466.0 yards per game through the first two weeks, throwing for 311.5 yards and rushing for 154.5 QB James Tabary, an Arkansas State transfer, has thrown for 491 yards and two touchdowns on the year, both of which were to WR Darious Crawley as RB Ryan Ross is averaging nearly 100 yards a game rushing. Defensively, McNeese is allowing 16.5 points and 262.0 yards per game, holding opponents to 107.5 rushing and 154.5 passing yards per game. DL Jammerio Gross-Whitaker has paced the defensive unit with 14 tackles and a tackle for loss with DB Erik Jones and LB Ashari Goins posting nine tackles each. DE Chris Livings is the Cowboys' top TFL performer with 2.0 TFL and a sack.
Stephen F. Austin McNeese have established of the conference's most under-the-radar rivalries with the Cowboys leading the all-time series 19-14-2 (.571) in 35 meetings. The road team has won each of the last three seasons as McNeese defeated the Lumberjacks 28-14 in 2015 in Nacogdoches, one year after SFA knocked off the sixth-ranked Cowboys 31-16 in Lake Charles in 2014. The 'Jacks are 6-10-1 (.382) all-time at Cowboy Stadium, winning two of their last three games in Lake Charles (2014, 2010). Head coach Clint Conque is 5-4 all-time against McNeese in his head coaching career with Saturday's game providing a bit of a homecoming as Conque served as an assistant coach for the Cowboys from 1987-89. 

Saturday marks Stephen F. Austin's 30th season as a member of the Southland Conference as the Lumberjacks have posted a 17-12 (.586) record in SLC openers since joining the league in 1987. 18 times, SFA has opened its conference slate on the road, posting an 8-10 (.444) record in road conference openers. McNeese has been Stephen F. Austin's conference opener on six occasions as the Lumberjacks are 3-3 (.500) all-time against the Cowboys in conference lid lifters.

Stephen F. Austin earned its first win of the 2016 campaign, holding off a late West Alabama rally to defeat the Tigers 30-24 at Homer Bryce Stadium. The Lumberjacks built a 30-17 lead after three quarters thanks to touchdown runs from Loren Easly and Zach Conque, a 75-yard punt return from Trae Hart and 12 points off the foot of Storm Ruiz. After a strong first half, SFA's offense struggled in the second, managing just 50 total yards and three first downs in the final 30 minutes, but the Lumberjack defensive unit stepped up to help preserve the win, holding West Alabama to just 35 rushing yards and finishing with 10 tackles for loss on the night, including a season-best seven sacks.

Senior QB Zach Conque reached an impressive career milestone in Saturday's win over West Alabama, throwing for 166 yards and giving him 5,078 career passing yards, making him the eighth player in program history to surpass 5,000 passing yards. The Little Rock native has also rushed for 1,159 yards during his SFA career, making him the first player in program history to both pass for 5,000 yards while rushing for over 1,000. In addition to his threat with his arm, his legs have also made him dangerous as he rushed for his 25th career touchdown against West Alabama, moving past SFA Hall of Famer Larry Centers and into sole possession of fourth-place all-time. He is already the Lumberjacks' all-time rushing leader for quarterbacks, sitting 23rd all-time in program history with 1,159 career rushing yards.

Junior DE John Franklin continues to live up to his preseason All-Southland Conference accolades as the Greenville native was a crucial defensive component in the win over West Alabama. Franklin finished with a career-best seven tackles, highlighted by 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Two of Franklin's sacks came on third down, halting UWA possessions, while his forced fumble set up a Lumberjack field goal to extend the lead. His final tackle of the night came in the waning seconds, preventing a Tiger touchdown, as the junior currently leads the Southland Conference and ranks eighth nationally with 3.5 sacks on the year.

Junior WR Trae Hart is making his presence felt quickly during his first season at SFA. The Purdue transfer provided what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in the win over West Alabama, returning a third quarter punt 75 yards for a touchdown to push the Lumberjacks' lead to 30-17. The 75-yard return goes down as the seventh-longest punt return in program history and the longest since an 80-yard return from Chris Jefferson in 1996, marking the first punt return for a touchdown since Gralyn Crawford's 72-yard punt return touchdown against Albany in 2010. Through two games, Hart has returned four punts for 116 yards, averaging 29.0 yards per return and ranking second nationally.

Senior DE Kedrick Harrison continued to add to his reputation as one of the top defensive ends in the conference Saturday, registering his second sack in as many games. The sack was the 25th tackle for loss of Harrison's Lumberjack career as he continues to inch closer to cracking the 'Jacks' all-time leaders in the category, sitting one and a half TFLs shy of  tyingWillie Jefferson (2011-12) for 10th all-time. The Coldspring native also has 12.5 career sacks, needing two and a half more to join the top-10 as well.

Sophomore RB Loren Easly made his 2016 Lumberjack debut Saturday against West Alabama and picked up where he left off as a freshman, rushing 17 times for 89 yards and a touchdown, the fifth of his SFA career. The Houston native draws closer and closer to becoming the 29th member of the 1,000-yard rushing club, racking up 848 yards in 11 career games while averaging 5.9 yards per carry in a Lumberjack uniform.

Stephen F. Austin's defensive front generated a significant amount of hype heading into the season, living up to that hype Saturday. The Lumberjacks finished with 10 tackles for loss against West Alabama with seven sacks, led by 2.5 sacks by DE John Franklin and 1.5 TFL (with a sack) by DE Jamal Allen. Through two games in 2016, SFA is tied for first nationally with Southland Conference foe Central Arkansas, averaging 4.5 sacks per game, while ranking 30th in tackles for loss (7.5 per game). The unit has also been stingy against the run, ranking 15th nationally by allowing just 80 rushing yards per game, holding the Tigers to just 35 rushing yards Saturday night.

Through the first two games of the 2016 season, Stephen F. Austin finds itself among the national FCS leaders in a number of categories. As a team, the Lumberjacks are tied for first nationally in sacks per game (4.5), fourth in punt return average (29.0), 15th in rushing defense (80.0 ypg), and 20th in fewest penalty yards per game (43.0). Individually, K Storm Ruiz is tied for first in both field goal and PAT percentage (100.0%) while ranking third in field goals per game (2.0), PR Trae Hart is second nationally in punt return average (29.0), DE John Franklin ranks eighth in sacks per game (1.25) with QB Zach Conque sitting 10th in completions per game (24.0). DE Kedrick Harrison is also among the national defensive leaders, joining Franklin among the sacks per game leaders in 12th (1.0).

Saturday's game against McNeese in Lake Charles marks the fifth game for head coach Clint Conque against his home state since he took over the Stephen F. Austin program prior to the 2014 season. A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Conque is 3-1 in games played in the Pelican State. In 2014, SFA defeated Nicholls 42-20 in Thibodaux before a 31-16 upset of sixth-ranked McNeese in Lake Charles. Last season, the 'Jacks recorded another upset, rallying to defeat 21st-ranked Southeastern Louisiana 28-27 in Hammond before dropping the season finale to Northwestern State 33-17 in Natchitoches.

SFA will strap on the uniform on September 17th for the ninth time in program history this Saturday, posting a 5-3 (.625) all-time record on the date. The Lumberjacks have earned victories against East Texas Baptist (1949), East Central (1966), Prairie View A&M (1988), Cal-State Sacramento (1994) and Western Illinois (2005) on September 17th with the last game on the date coming in 2011, a 48-0 loss against soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and the Baylor Bears in Waco. The showdown with McNeese will be just the third time SFA has played a road game on September 17th, going 1-1 in those games.

One unique stat for Stephen F. Austin heading into Saturday's game at McNeese is the game against the Cowboys marks the third-straight game the Lumberjacks will be facing an opposing head coach who is coaching his alma mater. SFA opened up the season against Texas Tech and head coach Kliff Kingsbury (class of 2001) before facing West Alabama and head coach Brett Gilliland (class of 2004) last Saturday. Lance Guidry, who earned his degree from McNeese in 1995, is in his first season at the helm of the Cowboys and actually spent one season on the roster with head coach Clint Conque, utilizing his redshirt season in 1989 - Conque's final year on the Cowboy coaching staff.