SIU Football takes on ISU in Battle of Illinois

By Cole Daily, Staff Reporter

Illinois State (2-1) is traveling to Carbondale to face Southern Illinois (2-1) at Saluki Stadium on Sept. 25.

The Salukis hosted the Dayton Flyers in their last matchup. SIU won the game 55-3, led by junior running back JaVon Williams, who rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown. Head coach Nick Hill said he was impressed by the team’s performance, and expects the same thing this Saturday.

“We were proud of our guys’ effort, and really their entire week of practice. We went out there and got rewarded in a win. Now we’ve turned the page […] and we understand that this season is just getting started,” Hill said, “Now we’re diving into the Missouri Valley Conference and it’s one game at a time.”

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Of the two teams SIU has played in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the Salukis have won by a combined total of 78 points. Junior linebacker Makel Calhoun said these games have fueled the players, and has given them confidence heading into their game against ISU.

“That confidence has always been there and we always feel like we can compete with anybody[…] We never go into any matchup like it’s David and Goliath. We feel that we’re the top competitor,” Calhoun said.

The Salukis are currently ranked 8th on NCAA.com’s FCS rankings. Calhoun thinks the team deserves to be higher.

“Eight is a little low to me, and I think my teammates would agree with me as well. Honestly, we feel like we’re the best of the best,” Calhoun said.

Because Southern Illinois and Illinois State are the two premier FCS teams from Illinois, it’s fitting that their rivalry is filled with history. Hill said the team is focused and won’t be listening to the outside noise about the rivalry.

“If we let our minds go to anything that doesn’t have an effect on the game, then we aren’t gonna play as good […] We’re gonna need to dive into film and find out what gives us the best chance to win,” Hill said.

Sophomore offensive tackle Beau Branyan said the players are taking this game very seriously. The Redbirds have won the last two contests, and the Salukis want to remind the fans who the top dog is.

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“We’ve never beaten them since I’ve been here, since 2018[…]and we were a little upset after they forfeited in the spring. So we owe them (the fans) a victory,” Branyan said.

Because many of the players have experienced those two losses, there is an extra layer to the rivalry.

“We definitely have a bitter taste in our mouth after the previous years, and last semester how they opted out of our game. We definitely feel some type of way about that,” Calhoun said.

Four games into the FCS season last spring, ISU announced it would not play the remainder of the season to help their players recover for the fall. The team was 1-3 at the time, and suffered many injuries. Branyan and Calhoun both felt ISU dodged the game against SIU, and they believe the Salukis were robbed of a win.

The dogs are hosting the Redbirds. Branyan said he thinks that will be an advantage for SIU.

“We love playing at home, we love our fanbase, and we love playing in front of them. They deserve to come to a game where we win the game and blow people out,” Branyan said.

This is SIU’s family weekend, so the Salukis are expecting a much larger crowd. The players will be looking to perform their very best for all the new viewers.

“It’s a big game[..] so we’re expecting the home crowd to come out and show us a bunch of love. Just being at home and playing in front of the home crowd always gives us an advantage,” Calhoun said.

Hill talked on Monday about what he expects from his team in the game against ISU.

“We’ve got to play fundamentally sound if we want to beat this team. Like I said, I’m excited about this challenge and so is my team,” Hill said.

Branyan said the offense plans to stop the Redbird’s defensive line from getting to the quarterback, and SIU’s running backs. Pushing the defensive line back will help the Salukis create more explosive plays.

Calhoun said the defense’s goal is to limit ISU’s run game and do their best to routinely stop the Redbirds.

“It’s conference play and we gotta stop the run. We’re gonna line up, expecting them to run the ball heavy, so we’re prepared to meet them in the backfield,” Calhoun said.

Both players said this game won’t be a cakewalk for the Salukis, despite ISU being ranked 36th. Branyan talked about the difficulty of this rivalry.

“We know they have a good defense, they always do […] That’s what they’re known for is their defense, so we’re going to come up with a good game plan to work around them,” Branyan said.

SIU is excited for its inner-state matchup against the Redbirds. If the team can capture a win against Illinois State at home, Hill thinks it’ll put SIU in a great position for the rest of the season.

“We’ve got a tough start this week with Illinois State. If you look past any team or any moment in this league, somebody’s gonna whoop your butt,” Hill said, “We’re excited to get going. I’m excited to play during family weekend and we’re excited about the challenge.”

Sports Reporter Cole Daily can be reached at [email protected]

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