The SIU football team must get a home win Saturday against South Dakota State University to keep its playoff expectations alive.
SIU (5-4, 4-2 MVC) will need to win its remaining two games to enter the playoff picture, which is decided by a committee. South Dakota State (6-2, 4-1) has a little more leeway.
“This is a do-or-die game for us. It’s not for them, but it is for us,” coach Dale Lennon said at his weekly press conference Monday. “If we want to have a chance to be in the playoffs, we have to win this football game. It’s simple math. There’s no getting around it. Our players know it. Our coaches know it. South Dakota State knows it. It’s game 10, and we’re playing for something pretty significant.”
To steal a win, SIU must contain the nation’s leading rusher as well as a quarterback playing his best.
South Dakota running back Zach Zenner rushes for 181 yards per game, which is top in the country, and averages 7.5 yards per carry. Quarterback Austin Sumner is coming off a career-high five-touchdown performance against Youngstown State on Oct. 27.
Lennon said the Salukis will need to focus on proper tackling to bring down the 6-foot, 215-pound Zenner.
“When you have a running back like Zenner, you can’t go for the knock down shot. His balance is too good, and his strength is too good,” he said. “When you get a running back like this you have to wrap up and then wait on reinforcements. Gang tackling is always big. You have to stop that initial charge because what he’s good at is getting more yards after second effort.”
The Saluki defense will look to take advantage of Sumner’s knack for turning the ball over. The South Dakota sophomore has been picked off 13 times, which is the most in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Saluki defense is tied for sixth nationally with 22 forced turnovers.
Sophomore linebacker Tyler Williamson said the SIU defense approaches every snap intending to force a turnover.
“It’s a mentality more than luck or momentum,” he said. “Whether it’s an interception or the running back leaves the ball away from his body (and you force a fumble), every series, every snap, you have to be consciously thinking, ‘Let’s get the ball back to the offense.’”
Lennon said the Salukis must find the right combination of running plays between seniors Steve Strother and Mulku Kalokoh, and sophomore Mika’il McCall to improve a run game that rushed 11 yards in a 23-17 loss to North Dakota State on Oct. 27.
“We’re trying to get the run game figured out,” freshman offensive lineman Matt Griffith said. “We’ve had a couple hitches.”
He said the Salukis haven’t changed their mindset with the playoffs looming.
“It’s been like that for us every week since we’ve started,” Griffith said. “It’s a playoff mentality, where we’ve got something to prove. We want to be a team that’s tough to win against and that people respect. Every week we try to send a message like it’s our last game. We’ve been playing like we’ve had our backs against the wall all season.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. Saturday at Saluki Stadium.