The SIU football team has a chance to seize a share of first place in the Missouri Valley Football Conference with a win on the road at Youngstown State Saturday.
The Salukis (4-3, 3-1 MVC) head into Saturday’s matchup fresh off of back-to-back wins against ranked conference opponents. Youngstown State (4-2, 1-2) has lost two straight after a hot start to the season that included an upset win over Football Bowl Subdivision opponent Pittsburgh in the season’s opening week.
At his weekly press conference, coach Dale Lennon said the Penguins will offer some unique challenges to the Salukis.
“They know we run three down lineman. They will be game planning for that,” Lennon said. “Their offense is a fun offense to watch. They are very well coached and will find your weak areas and know how to attack you. Every week is different, so they will have a different game plan for us, and they will throw some stuff at us that we haven’t seen. That will be the key for us, how we adjust to that and how do we defend it.”
The Salukis have thrived off of big turnovers this season, including a blocked punt touchdown and a fumble returned for a touchdown Saturday against the University of Northern Iowa. Youngstown State has turned the ball over only four times this season, which is the fewest instances in the conference.
“We always try to put the offense in bad spots, so if they aren’t accustomed to turning the ball over, that is going to be the main thing we try to do is force them into bad situations,” senior linebacker Jayson Dimanche said. “When it’s time to make a play, we really make an effort to do so. You know when the game is on the line.”
Lennon preaches to his team the notion that a handful of plays can determine the game’s outcome. If the Salukis can come out on top in those big plays, it vastly improves their chances of leaving Youngstown with a win Saturday.
“We understand that every play has the possibility of becoming a big play,” sophomore linebacker Tyler Williamson said. “As a defense, we learned that last week. We gave up too many big plays (against UNI). There was a big discretion between their explosive plays and their non-explosive plays. You’ve got to contain.”
Williamson said the Panthers gained close to 260 yards on five or six plays Saturday, and they ran only 180 yards on the remaining 58 plays.
Youngstown quarterback Kurt Hess is the Penguin offense’s leader. Hess completes 62.1 percent of his passing attempts and has turned the ball over twice this season, which is the fewest among the MVFC’s starting quarterbacks.
Hess also has been sacked only five times. The Saluki defense leads the conference with 22 sacks on the year.
“(Youngstown State) returns a veteran offensive line,” Lennon said. “All five of those individuals were playing last year. Plus, Hess is just good. He is tough to get to. We will have our schemes, and we will have our matchups. It’s not going to be automatic trying to get pressure on him every time they throw the football.”
Dimanche said the Saluki defense will be ready for whatever the Penguins throw at them.
“They are a good team. They’ve got some good players. It’s going to be tough. It will be a great challenge for us as a defense, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 3:00 p.m.