The 2012 SIU football season began with a wicked downward spiral, was paced by an exhilarating climb to the top and finished with Saluki fans, coaches and players believing the ride ended prematurely.
While the goal of a playoff birth was missed by the smallest of margins, perhaps a few yards, the Salukis (6-5, 5-3) played a season that didn’t lack in successes, as the team finished the year with its first winning record in three years.
The 2012 campaign will be remembered for a South Dakota State loss Nov. 3 that would have given the team a playoff birth opportunity. SIU led for the game’s majority, but allowed a conversion on fourth-and-19 on the Jackrabbits’ final drive that eventually led to the game-winning score.
Freshman safety Anthony Thompson said the play, and the game, will be the team’s main motivation as it moves forward.
“On that fourth-and-19, I feel like we should have capitalized on that,” he said. “If we had stopped them, we would have won the game. But things happen. That’s football.”
Still, the near-miss of a playoff birth wouldn’t have been possible without a strong effort by the team over the course of the season.
SIU started the year with a devastating 49-28 loss to Eastern Illinois Aug. 30 and another tough 30-14 loss the following week to Miami University.
The Salukis managed a pair of wins in the subsequent weeks — a 35-14 victory over Southeast Missouri State Sep. 15 and a 14-6 win over Missouri State Sep. 22 — but then returned to disappointment in a 24-3 loss to Indiana State Sep. 29. With a 2-3 record and a host of nationally ranked teams left on the schedule, many had already written the Salukis off.
However, things were only starting to get interesting.
Oct. 6 marked a matchup with then-undefeated Illinois State. In a thrilling defensive display, SIU shutout the high-powered Redbird defense and won the contest 17-0. Junior receiver John Lantz said the win gave the team the confidence it was previously lacking.
“I think when we lost our first two games, the thing that got us some confidence was winning at home against SEMO,” he said. “From there, we had a hard stretch with a bunch of good teams in a row and we started knocking them down. I think the biggest game for our confidence would be when we beat Illinois State on the road. From then on, we thought we could compete with anybody in the conference.”
The assurance came at the perfect time, as SIU had Northern Iowa and Youngstown State next on the schedule, both teams having earned national attention. Again, a strong defense and diligent offense carried the team to wins, a 34- 31 win over UNI and a 38-21 Youngstown victory.
At 5-3, the Salukis were running on all cylinders.
Oct. 27 marked a bout with defending national champion North Dakota State. While the Salukis took a tough 23-17 loss, there was no time to dwell on the defeat as a possible playoff spot and conference championship loomed.
Then came the fourth-and-19 debacle against South Dakota State.
The Salukis had nothing left to play for but pride after the loss, and they made sure to show they had plenty of it. The team took its frustrations out on an overwhelmed Western Illinois team Nov. 17 and ended the year with a 35-0 shutout.
Head coach Dale Lennon said the win over Western showed the resilience that his team had portrayed all season.
“Every game was a must-win for us to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish on the season, but to finish in the upper echelon of the Missouri Valley, to want it that bad, we gave it all we had,” he said. “I’m proud of the effort the team gave. It was never due to a lack of effort that we didn’t have more success.”
The Salukis won games with a smash-mouth defense that at times gave the team as much of a chance to put points on the board as the offense, as it scored nine non-offensive touchdowns on the year.
“It was frustrating at times, but we all believed in each other,” senior running back Steve Strother said. “We knew that all we had to do was go out and believe and put forth our best effort, and we could play with anybody. (The offense) definitely could have done more. There were games when the defense was really carrying us at the beginning of the year in a lot of games. We could have done more. We could have put up more points. It’s a team game.”
Next season, the team will miss its seniors, many of whom were the heart and soul of the team both on and off the field. Defensive linemen Eze Obiora (50 tackles, eight sacks), Kayon Swanson (53 tackles) and Ken Boatright (62 tackles, five sacks) have used all of their eligibility, as well as linebackers Jayson DiManche (49 tackles, eight sacks) and Joe Okon (66 tackles). Offensively, the 2013 team will be without wide receiver David Lewis (27 catches, two touchdowns) and running backs Mulku Kalokoh (141 rushing yards, and Strother (586 rushing yards).
“I think I had a pretty decent career,” Strother said. “Overall, I’m happy with what I did here at SIU. I feel like I left it all on the field, that’s all you could ask for.”
The Salukis retain a seasoned group of players who will be ready to take the team to the next level in 2013, lead by junior quarterback Kory Faulkner.
Faulkner struggled at times in the passing game throughout his first full season as a starter, but Lennon said he took major strides throughout the course of the year.
“The quarterback position is the most difficult one because everyone is the expert on quarterback play. Kory continued to improve on the season. The thing I was most proud of was he developed a toughness throughout the season that will allow him to be even more successful down the road. There are still areas that he needs to improve upon, but the thing that I like the best about him is he became the competitor that I wanted him to become.”
Perhaps the greatest compliment Lennon could give his players was the enjoyment he had as he coached them.
“What happens with football, it’s the personalities that you end up remembering,” he said. “This team was probably my most enjoyable team to coach because there were so many personalities involved. Every day was different. I’m not saying it was always easy, but for the guys to stay together early on in the season after Eastern Illinois, after Indiana State, where it didn’t look real bright at that point in time, our guys came together and nobody ever faltered. I’m proud of that.”