Salukis must win Saturday for playoff berth

By Gus Bode

Four losses likely would keep No. 11-ranked SIU out of postseason play

Make no mistake about it. The playoffs are starting a week early for the Salukis.

The No. 11-ranked SIU football team has already clinched a share of the Gateway Conference title, but one more achievement is dancing just out of reach:an at-large bid to the national playoffs.

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When the No. 20-ranked North Dakota State Bison (7-3, 3-2 Great West Conference) visit McAndrew Stadium Saturday afternoon, the Salukis have a chance to control their own fates and make a third straight appearance in the playoffs. A victory virtually assures that, but a loss could condemn them and end collegiate careers for 22 senior Salukis.

The epic proportions of SIU’s last regular-season game are not lost on the Salukis (7-3, 5-2 Gateway) or head coach Jerry Kill. In fact, Kill said he predicted everything hinging on this final game.

“I said way back in our schedule … it’s probably going to come down to beating North Dakota State, and that’s what it has come down to,” Kill said. “This is the playoffs.”

Obviously, the implications of the game are quite serious for the Salukis. The Bison, however, are ineligible for postseason play after moving up from Division II football two years ago. They are likely looking forward to playing the role of a spoiler while ending the season on a high note.

“As well as they are coached, I can’t imagine a scenario of them walking in here and just trying to get a game over with,” senior quarterback Joel Sambursky said days before what could be his final game as a Saluki. “We expect them to come in here and give us a dogfight.”

The Bison are third in the Great West Conference and possess a daunting defense. They have held opponents to just 14.2 points and 272 yards a game. NDSU’s rush defense is particularly potent, as they limit foes to 121 yards a game, which would put it in the top three of the gateway.

“That is the strength of their football team is defense, the kicking game, and they don’t turn it over,” Kill said. “That is how they are winning.”

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While the Bison don’t turn the ball over, they are adept at forcing fumbles and picking off wayward passes. NDSU has recovered nine fumbles and intercepted 15 throws through the course of their season.

What the Bison do on the other side of the ball, though, is almost as remarkable. The Bison, much like the majority of Gateway teams, possess a balanced offensive attack.

Quarterback Steve Walker has 14 touchdowns while averaging about 170 yards a game. Running back Kyle Steffes has matched Walker with 14 touchdowns of his own while averaging the century mark in rushing. Steffes has specifically impressed Kill, who compared him to a certain Saluki great.

“(He’s an) excellent football player. He reminds me a lot of Tommy Koutsos,” Kill said.

Koutsos, who played his final season as a Saluki in 2003, holds a myriad rushing records. He had the most career touchdown (52), career points (312) and was sixth in touchdowns in a season with 14 in his senior campaign.

Such a comparison warrants some attention.

“They spread it out, but we do kind of see them as a running team,” senior linebacker Royal Whitaker said. “They run the ball before they pass, so if we stop the run, then we got to expect the pass.”

However the Bison attack the Salukis one thing is certain. SIU will not allow a stampede at McAndrew Stadium. Too much depends upon this game, as no team has ever received an at-large bid with four losses.

“We understand how important of a game it is, and we are extremely excited about it,” Sambursky said. “I think we are definitely playing for a lot.”

Reporter Gabe House can be reached at [email protected]

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