It is gut-check time for SIU’s defense.
One week after the Salukis allowed a season-high 37 points and 499 yards of offense to Illinois State, the Salukis face another opponent that could put up points and yards in Saturday’s 6 p.m. game at McAndrew Stadium.
Western Kentucky looks familiar to Jerry Kill, the Salukis’ head coach.
“They present the same problems as Illinois State – that Haddix, great tailback, great receiver, good on the offensive line,” Kill said.
“That” Haddix is senior quarterback Justin Haddix, the Gateway Football Conference’s second-ranked passer in yards and touchdowns. The Hilltoppers’ tailback, senior Lerron Moore, averages more than 105 yards a game. The line, anchored by three seniors and two juniors, brings game experience to an offense averaging nearly 24 points per game.
The Salukis (5-1, 2-1 Gateway) could have their hands full when WKU (3-3, 2-1) has the ball, even with one of its top threats, Curtis Hamilton, sidelined with an injury.
Hamilton, a wide receiver, averages more than 100 yards per contest, and his absence could slow down a passing attack that averages 211 yards a game. After Hamilton was injured last week against Missouri State, the Hilltoppers were held scoreless in their 17-14 win.
SIU’s defensive backfield could use the break after allowing two Illinois State wideouts to each gain more than 100 yards receiving.
Kill and his staff spent extra time with their corners and safeties in a week of practices that focused more on fundamentals than punitive running. Getting back to playing sound defense was the focus.
“As far as practice goes, we slowed practice down because we’ve got to be better teachers because we’ve got a young team,” Kill said.
The defense was built around speed to slow down quick, skilled offenses but sometimes finds itself out of position and suspect to big plays.
The Salukis were bitten by a 98-yard touchdown pass in their win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Against Illinois State, the defense allowed two touchdown passes of more than 35 yards that turned a 17-10 ISU lead into a 30-10 chasm.
Tracy Claeys, SIU’s defensive coordinator, said the plays represented a deviation from the team’s philosophy on how to stay in games.
“We have a goal of one big play or less because they could always, whether it’s a trick play – whatever it is – there’s a chance of a big play,” Claeys said.
Senior cornerback Brandon Bruner said receptions happen, but the team needs to forget about them after they happen and move on to the next play. Junior cornerback Craig Turner agreed and went a little further.
“We just have to go out and play our game, keep our eyes in the right spot, footwork, stay with our schemes and just go out and play,” Turner said.
While Claeys said some of the Salukis’ problems could be attributed to less pressure on opposing quarterbacks – SIU earned only one sack against the Redbirds – coverage would have to improve.
“Back there, if you don’t do things well, it shows up on game day like it did,” Claeys said.
One area ripe for a jumpstart is interceptions. While SIU’s 15 sacks lead the Gateway, its two interceptions rank last – a strange statistic considering the Salukis’ defense leads the conference in opponent’s passing efficiency.
Bruner said he pays attention to a pretty good defense and tries to take lessons from what it does.
“I watch a lot of Chicago Bears defense and notice how many turnovers they get, and if we want to be a great defense, we’ve got to get turnovers and force turnovers,” Bruner said. “So we’re just hoping to get as many as we can this week.”