Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

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SIU vs. SDSU: Can the Salukis repeat their once-in-a-lifetime upset?

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The Southern Illinois football team will return to Saluki Stadium on Saturday for its first home game in three weeks. Appropriately, the “Homecoming” game will give SIU fans a chance to see their No. 12 ranked Dawgs in action.

On the other side: the No. 1 team in the country; the reigning FCS National Champions; one of just two unbeaten teams left in the FCS: South Dakota State.

Longtime fans of the FCS, and specifically the Missouri Valley Football Conference, likely expected the Jackrabbits’ neighbor to the north to be the team to beat. After all, North Dakota State has won nine National Championships since 2011 with separate five-year and three-year championship streaks, and holds the longest active playoff streak in the FCS.

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But the Jackrabbits have been no slouch either. They hold the second-longest playoff streak (11 for SDSU; 13 for NDSU), and beat the Bison in January to finally win their first National Championship after years of coming up just short in the playoffs.

Southern Illinois is just 4-9 all-time against South Dakota State. Between 2010-2020, SIU won just one out of their 10 matchups, including an FCS playoff game in May 2021.

The Salukis will not be favored against the Jackrabbits, no matter how strong the start of their season was. Very few opponents are comparable to South Dakota State in talent, in coaching, in pedigree.

However, the Salukis have been here before.

Southern Illinois is used to playing top-ranked teams in the powerhouse conference that is the Valley. Carbondale welcomed the NDSU Bison as the No. 1 team in 2013, 2019 and 2021, and visited them in 2014 and 2018.

Quarterback Nic Baker made the first start of his future hall of fame career on Feb. 27, 2021, during a COVID-induced spring season. Baker was thrown into the fire against the No. 1 Bison, which was on a 39-game winning streak at that point.

Against all odds, Baker would lead the Salukis to a commanding 38-14 victory, kickstarting the team’s ascension into national contention.

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Fastforward 32 months later; Baker, now the all-time school leader in passing yards, stares down the same challenge. Different team, same threat.

With that being said, the Jackrabbits are not the Bison. It may be easy to lump the four Dakota teams in the Valley together and even mix them up at times, considering their similar names and close proximity to each other relative to SIU. But with how tough all of the directional and “State” variants are, each one warrants careful attention and distinct gameplanning.

Fortunately, the Salukis have also proven that they can handle the Jackrabbits in particular, even if by the skin of their teeth. Their most recent matchup in October 2021 ended with Southern prevailing over the No. 2 Jackrabbits after being down 20 points in what is tied for the second-largest comeback in program history.

That was before South Dakota State got over the hump and became the reigning National Champions. In doing so, they joined the Bison as the only two teams currently in the FCS to win its National Championship since 2011. The other two champions from that era, James Madison and Sam Houston State, have since moved up to the FBS level.

Now, the Jackrabbits stand alone atop the Missouri Valley until someone knocks them off. The Salukis have proven they can beat the No. 1 team in the country; the reigning National Champions; the best the Valley has to offer. The Salukis hold bragging rights on the most recent chapter of an otherwise lopsided series.

Whether they can actually pull off a once-in-a-lifetime upset twice remains to be seen. But the pieces are in place for a potential all-timer at Saluki Stadium. Hosting a Homecoming crowd, the Dawgs will need to bring their best to outpace the Jackrabbits.

But, it is possible.

To beat South Dakota State, the Salukis will need to play nearly perfect football. That starts with limiting penalties and turnovers; the former has been an issue for SIU, allowing 18 first downs on penalties in six games. The Jackrabbits have also struggled in that department, with opponents moving the chains 16 times as a result of a penalty.

On the other hand, Southern’s defense has been rock solid in terms of forcing turnovers. The unit has recovered a fumble in every game except for one: the Northern Illinois game when the Salukis nabbed three of their eight total interceptions on the year.

South Dakota State rarely gives the opponent extra chances; the Jackrabbits have fumbled the ball four times and thrown just one interception.

The red zone is where the Saluki defense has thrived thus far. It has allowed just six touchdowns on 16 red zone drives by opponents, and has forced three turnovers inside the 20. That strength will be tested by a South Dakota State offense that has scored touchdowns on 22 of its 23 total red zone trips this season.

The Jackrabbits have scored at least 40 points on every opponent they’ve faced except for Montana State, the No. 2 team in the FCS. For the Salukis to have a shot, they will need to shut down the offense and avoid a shootout with a team that has scored at will all year long.

In terms of efficiency, Southern Illinois has the best passing defense in the Valley, but the worst passing offense. With that in mind, a cold October afternoon in Carbondale might turn Homecoming into a battle of the ground game.

Much of South Dakota State’s offensive production comes from its Valley-best rushing attack, which averaged 6.8 yards per carry and 270 yards per game in its first three conference matchups. The Jackrabbits punched it in 10 times, ranking second in the MVFC.

Defensively, both teams are equally successful at stopping the run, with nearly identical yardage numbers in conference games. And while SIU trails behind the Jackrabbits in overall production, the ground game showed out in its most recent contest against Murray State, racking up 270 yards and splitting carries between three different running backs.

The Salukis have been without running back Ro Elliott and wide receiver D’Ante’ Cox for a few weeks. While SIU has managed to be successful on the ground without Elliott, the absence of Cox has correlated with a downturn in the passing game.

If the Salukis can play their game, and play it well, they will have a shot. In the Missouri Valley Football Conference, where nearly every game is a tough test, all they will need is a shot.

Kickoff for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 2 p.m. from Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. See the Oct. 18 edition of the Daily Egyptian for information on other Homecoming weekend events, and more coverage of Saluki football.

Sports editor Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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