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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Saluki football will take on No. 4 Idaho with the world watching

SIU football kicks off a 9 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2
SIU+football+sings+the+school+fight+song+with+fans+in+the+stands+moments+after+the+Salukis+beat+the+Missouri+State+Bears+33-20+Sept.+30%2C+2023+at+Saluki+Stadium+in+Carbondale%2C+Illinois.+
Lylee Gibbs | @lyleegibbsphoto
SIU football sings the school fight song with fans in the stands moments after the Salukis beat the Missouri State Bears 33-20 Sept. 30, 2023 at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale, Illinois.

In the past three seasons, national seeds are 18-2 in the second round of the FCS playoffs. That includes two matchups where Southern Illinois had its seasons end at the hands of highly-ranked Missouri Valley Football Conference teams. With history stacked against the Salukis, it wouldn’t take much to convince someone that Saturday will be the team’s final game in the 2023 season.

At 9 p.m. central time on Dec. 2, Saluki football will kick off against the No. 4 Idaho Vandals (8-3) in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN2. With more eyes on this game than almost any other SIU has played in recent years, it has a chance to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the Nick Hill era.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to play on national television,” head coach Nick Hill said. “Just an opportunity for our school to be on that stage.”

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The Vandals enter the postseason as the champions of the Big Sky Conference. Both of the aforementioned losses by national seeds were by fourth-ranked teams, most recently Big Sky champion Sacramento State falling to unseeded Valley member South Dakota State in 2021.

While history isn’t on SIU’s side, there is precedent to an upset. That South Dakota State team went on to become the first unseeded team since 2016 to advance to the semifinals of a 24-team FCS playoff bracket.

As head coach of the Salukis, Hill has an impressive record against non-conference opponents, having improved that mark against FCS teams to 14-4 with SIU’s most recent win. If you only consider games against teams other than yearly rivals Southeast Missouri State, that mark improves to 9-1.

Both of Hill’s other two playoff appearances followed the same pattern: winning the first-round matchup on the road before falling to a seeded Valley opponent. This time, the Salukis opened up at home, and will face a non-conference opponent in the second round for the first time since 2009. Following the trend of SIU’s non-conference performances, the Salukis might have gotten the best draw they could have asked for.

Idaho features an electric offense led by two Walter Payton Award finalists: quarterback Gevani McCoy and wide receiver Hayden Hatten. The team scores an average of 34 points per game and racked up more than 400 yards in seven of its 11 games this season.

The team’s resume also stacks up well, with an FBS win over Nevada as well as a 2-1 record against FCS playoff teams. While SIU can also claim an FBS win over Northern Illinois, its record against playoff teams only featured one regular season win against four losses.

“Like us, they’ve played a really challenging schedule,” Hill said. “Two teams that are used to really good competition, playing in big games. And that’s what you’re gonna get at this time of year.”

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One might look to Idaho’s most recent loss to find a formula for success against the Vandals. Despite racking up a season-high in passing yards, Idaho had to play catch-up against Weber State (6-5), as the Wildcats stayed one step ahead of the Vandals on the scoreboard for the entire second half.

Although Idaho dominated in many team categories during that Nov. 11 matchup, Weber State forced two fumbles, and ensured that Idaho always faced a long field. That is a recipe for a high-yardage output, but not so much in the scoring department, as Weber State came away with a 31-29 upset win.

Southern Illinois ranks as the third-best defense in the FCS by yards per game. Idaho ranks eighth on that same list. If Saturday is a drawn-out, low-scoring, smash-mouth defensive battle, that will play into the Salukis’ favor. If it unravels into a shootout, that becomes Idaho’s game to lose.

“It’s still gonna come down to the things that we talk about all the time,” Hill said. “Turnover margin, blocking, tackling, you know, staying away from the unforced penalties.”

SIU is 8-0 when it scores more than 10 points in any game. But that statistic also comes paired with the fact that the Salukis do not engage in high-scoring games very often. On average, an Idaho game will feature 56 points combined, while the Salukis only played in two games that reached that mark – one of which was a 63-0 beatdown on 0-11 Western Illinois.

With that in mind, Saturday will likely resemble one of Southern’s other battles against playoff teams this season. The question is whether it will closer resemble its 17-10 and 14-7 battles to South Dakota State and South Dakota respectively, or lean more in the range of its 31-3 and 34-10 blowouts against Youngstown State and North Dakota State.

The problem then lies with the fact that all four of those aforementioned games were Saluki losses. With its first-round win, SIU is now just 2-4 against playoff teams this year. It hasn’t suffered any bad losses – unlike Idaho’s upset loss to Weber State – but it also hasn’t shown to this point the ability to get the big win when the odds are against it.

The Saluki defense is coming on on arguably its hottest run possible, only allowing a field goal across its past two games against Indiana State and Nicholls. The team will need that performance to continue as it gets deeper into the postseason, as it needs to avoid getting into a shootout with some of the best offenses in the country.

2023 will be a memorable year no matter what the results are the rest of the way. But on Saturday night, Southern will be able to determine whether this season ends just like two of the last three have, or if 2023 will mark a turning point in the program, where Southern Illinois takes the same step forward that South Dakota State did in 2021.

Kickoff for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 9 p.m. central time from the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. The game will be televised on ESPN2 as well as ESPN+.

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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