(STATS) - Clint Conque is 0-4 for the first time in his coaching career, and it will likely take a stellar effort from Stephen F. Austin to avoid a fifth straight loss.
The Lumberjacks are set to take on a 12th-ranked Sam Houston State program eager to keep moving past its own slow start in Saturday's 90th "Battle of the Piney Woods" at Houston's NRG Stadium.
A challenging early slate has played a significant role in Conque's worst start in 16 years as a head coach and his team's worst since going 0-11 in 2007.
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SFA opened Sept. 5 with a 34-28 loss to Northern Arizona, which received votes in the latest STATS FCS Top 25, and was throttled 70-7 by FBS No. 3 TCU a week later.
The Lumberjacks then kicked off their Southland Conference slate with a 28-14 loss to one of the league favorites, No. 23 McNeese State, on Sept. 19 before falling 35-32 at Abilene Christian this past weekend.
"We're a struggling football team right now. It seems like we find different yet similar ways not to win or finish games," Conque said. "I think the effort is fine. The want-to is present, but fundamentally we're not executing consistently for 60 minutes."
SFA will next take on the favored team in the Southland and a preseason national title contender in the Bearkats (1-2, 0-1).
Sam Houston State appeared to live up to that hype with a 59-45 loss at Texas Tech on Sept. 5. The Bearkats trailed by just four until the waning seconds of the first half and outgained the Red Raiders 637 yards to 611 while running 98 plays.
Sam Houston then stumbled with a 49-46 loss to Lamar in its Southland opener Sept. 19, and coach K.C. Keeler said he perhaps gave his team a little too much rest during its bye week. The Bearkats responded with a 63-14 victory over Houston Baptist this past weekend while racking up 727 yards - the second-most in program history.
"I saw us improve and I'm anxious to see us play better against what I think is a very good football team," Keeler said. "You look at SFA's schedule. Who's playing that schedule? It just happened to be the way it lined up early in the season for them."
Sam Houston State has won the past four meetings with SFA while averaging 48.5 points, including a 42-28 victory Nov. 1 in which the Bearkats ran for 357 yards. They're averaging an FCS-best 51.3 points and their 635.3 yards per game ranks second.
Stephen F. Austin, meanwhile, is 108th out of 123 teams in total defense, allowing nearly 500 yards per contest.
Ken Collums was a freshman starting quarterback for Central Arkansas' NAIA national championship team in 1991 and served two stints as an assistant coach for the Bears, the last of which ended in 2004. He'll make his first appearance on UCA's opposing sideline when Abilene Christian heads into Conway on Saturday.
"I played for four years there and sat in classrooms there and coached there. I spent about 12 years on campus and met my wife there. My experience and my roots run deep there," the Wildcats coach said. "I haven't had to go back on campus and walk into Estes Stadium as the enemy yet. That'll be different."
Abilene Christian can improve to 3-0 in the Southland and 3-1 overall. Central Arkansas (1-2, 1-0) is coming off a 49-21 rout in its conference opener at Northwestern State last weekend, but senior quarterback Taylor Reed hurt his left shoulder.
Sophomore Hayden Hildebrand went 12 for 16 for 201 yards and three touchdowns in his place. He could get his first collegiate start Saturday with Reed considered day to day and a likely game-time decision.
"He got (his shoulder) banged up in the game, but he's progressing well," coach Steve Campbell said.
Incarnate Word likely got some attention from the rest of the conference with its competitive showing in its first game against an FBS opponent last Saturday.
The Cardinals took a seven-point lead in the third quarter at UTEP on Trent Brittain's 90-yard scoring pass to Jamari Gilbert but couldn't hang on in a 27-17 defeat. Gilbert finished with a career-high 154 yards and two touchdowns on four catches.
"It wasn't enough just to go out there and play well. We were disappointed we didn't win," said coach Larry Kennan, whose program is in its third FCS season. "That was good to see because we're growing as a team.
"We've still got a long way to go, but we're growing every week."
Incarnate Word (2-2, 1-1) will try to match its Southland win total from its first season in the conference when it hosts Northwestern State (0-4, 0-2).