Football: On a Mission

By Gus Bode

Seniors on the SIU football team have decided Chatanooga, Tenn., would be a fine place to hang up their cleats.

Chattanooga, the site of the Dec. 15 NCAA Division I-AA National Championship, could be the last possible stop for the team as well as its seniors – a win in Chattanooga would give SIU its first national championship since 1983.

Head coach Jerry Kill has described his seniors’ play as, “on a mission.”

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Since being on the brink of playoff elimination – the Salukis have been in must-win games since its Nov. 11 matchup against the University of Northern Iowa – an abundance of seniors have turned up the intensity and have led the Salukis to their national quarterfinals game against No. 2 University of Montana on Saturday.

Players such as running back Arkee Whitlock, center Will Justice, cornerback Brandon Bruner, tight end Braden Jones, kicker Craig Coffin and defensive ends Lorenzo Wims and Micah King have all made significant contributions throughout the past few games.

Whitlock, Jones, Justice, Wise and Wims were all honored with a first-team all-conference selection. Coffin, King and Bruner, meanwhile, were given second-team honors.

Linebacker Patrick Jordan even returned from a knee injury just in time to help the Salukis secure a playoff appearance in a win against Southern Utah University.

Kill said the seniors could use the one-loss-and-out format the playoffs have as motivation because the seniors must win the national championship in order to leave as a winner.

“This is it for them,” Kill said. “If we would have finished out the season on senior day, then they could have said they went out as a winner. It’s very hard in I-AA to say you came out as a winner unless you win the national championship, so I don’t think there is any question what their motivation is going to be.”

Whitlock, the most heralded of the senior class, has specifically turned his game on when the Salukis have needed it the most.

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Since Nov. 11 – the start of SIU’s must-win schedule – Whitlock has amassed 800 total yards off offense with 11 touchdowns. The Payton Award finalist scored four touchdowns against UNI and UT-Martin – both career highs – and three against Southern Utah.

The bigger the game, the more Whitlock produces.

Junior quarterback Nick Hill has said that, in his first year as a starter, he and the team are just riding the back of Whitlock as far as he can take them.

“He really has a will to win. He is a fighter and a competitor, and we are just riding him,” Hill said. “He really is the best player in the country, and anytime you have the best player in the country in the game, you feel good about it.”

Whitlock, though, prefers to defer the attention he receives to other seniors on the team – in particular the ones who stand in front of him.

“I’m not really concerned about myself, I’m more concerned with the guys that have had my back the whole time I have been here,” Whitlock said. “We all want to keep playing, and the only chance you have is to win these next three games. We don’t want this to be the last weekend, and we are going to be motivated to win this game.”

One player Whitlock must be extra thankful for is Justice, a first-team all-conference player this season.

Justice has been a main factor in Whitlock’s dominance over the opposing defenses this season. Justice has also played a key role in Hill’s progression as a quarterback, allowing for maximum pocket room to maneuver in.

Whitlock said he wishes he could have every offensive lineman under every stat he has compiled this season and said he wants to win more for them than he does for himself.

Hill has said time and time again he wants to keep winning to extend the seniors’ careers – he said going out on top could be the perfect end to the SIU-senior relationship.

“We have an opportunity right now to do something that no SIU team has done here in a while,” Hill said. “If we can get that done, then we can really make the season special for them.”

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