After finishing last season 6-5 and missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year, the SIU Football Team will look to avenge their subpar season and give the Saluki fans a lot to cheer about this year.
The Salukis’ first stop on their journey to a Missouri Valley Football Conference Championship will be in Champaign Saturday when they visit intrastate foe University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The Illini hold a 3-0 all-time record against the Salukis, with the last matchup played in 2010. In that game, Illinois came out on top 35-3.
Coach Dale Lennon said he will use experience gained from the 2010 matchup to his advantage.
“It will be a benefit,” Lennon said. “I think every game you coach, you take something away from it. Some of our players that were there can draw from the experience.”
This will be the first time since 2009 that SIU will open the season against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. That year, the Salukis opened with a 31-28 loss at Marshall.
The Salukis will look to improve on an offense that struggled at times last year and remain consistent on a defense that lost three starters who now play professionally. Lennon said although the Salukis failed to reach the playoffs last season he believes the team was just short of reaching their goal, and this year will be much different.
“We were a good team last year,” Lennon said. “We were third in the league, we were close to being a playoff team, we were just a couple of plays short and what I would like to think is that we went out and found those couple plays and hopefully now we can produce them.”
Lennon said the team this year is filled with playmakers on both sides of the ball, and the talent level will be on display this season.
“Offensively, we’ve added some playmakers that are definitely going to have the potential to score anywhere on the field,” Lennon said. “Defensively, we want to continue to do what we have been doing.”
Four of the university’s top five leaders in receiving yards from 2012 return this season. SIU threw for 1,900 yards last season and the returning players accounted for 75 percent of those yards.
Junior tight end MyCole Pruitt was a main contributor to the passing game last season and has been for the past two seasons. Pruitt has been named to the MVFC Preseason team and was also named a preseason second team All-American by The Sports Network and Phil Steele Magazine.
Pruitt said his main offensive objective this season is become more physical.
“You got to want to hit somebody on every play,” Pruitt said. “We’re definitely coming out with more of an attitude this year and I feel like there’s a chip on our shoulders.”
Teammates will count on senior quarterback Kory Faulkner to spread the ball to the returning playmakers as well as provide vocal leadership to an offense that will be expected to put up a lot of points. Faulkner enters the season with 3,350 passing yards, which ranks 10th on the SIU all-time list. Faulker will make his 19th consecutive start Saturday.
Faulkner said he has a lot of confidence in what the skills players will provide to the offense this season.
“Everyone we have brought back at the skills positions has played a lot,” Faulkner said. “John Lantz, one of our wide receivers, has been a three-year starter; LaSteven McKinney has been a three-year starter; MyCole (Pruitt) has been a three-year starter this coming year so we bring back a lot of experience.”
Faulkner said the running game will also be a big factor to the offense this season.
All three members of SIU’s defensive line and two of its four starting linemen from last season’s team were seniors, leaving the group with four starters remaining on a defense that wrecked havoc in the MVC last season.
Defensive Line Coach Austin Flyger said last year’s defensive starters will be missed, but now it’s time for a new batch of starters to step up.
“There are still a lot of (players) who played a lot of reps so we have a little more experience in different spots, just not necessarily the defensive line,” Flyger said. “We still have some capable (players) and we’re excited to see what they can go out there and do.”
The MVFC will be one of the toughest conferences in the Football Championship Subdivision this season and Lennon said for SIU to make the playoffs, they will have to come ready to play every game.
“Right now there’s five and there probably could be eight teams ranked in the top 25 if it went that way,” Lennon said. “Every week’s going to be a battle. You can’t let your guard down for one moment, we’re aware of that and that will be the challenge.”