Salukis stare down second-half marathon

Senior tight end MyCole Pruitt talks with team members Sept. 20, 2014, during the first half of the Salukis 35-13 loss against Purdue University at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. ( file photo)

Senior tight end MyCole Pruitt talks with team members Sept. 20, 2014, during the first half of the Salukis’ 35-13 loss against Purdue University at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. ( file photo)

By Tony McDaniel

The first half of the season is behind Saluki football (5-1), but so is its easiest stretch of games.

In the final six games of the season all of the Salukis’ opponents are, or have been ranked in the Football Championship Subdivision top 25 and have a combined record of 22-7.

Junior quarterback Mark Iannotti said the Salukis would have to approach each game for the rest of the season as a playoff game.


“There’s no games that we can let slide, that we can afford any losses,” he said. “These next six weeks are going to come down to who’s in [the playoffs] and who’s going home.”

The Salukis will only play Missouri Valley Conference teams for the rest of the season. Iannotti said he has been surprised by how competitive the Valley is.

“Coming from the Mid-American Conference, it’s just not the same kind of environment in terms of the stadium. It’s not the same competitiveness between the teams,” he said. “In the Missouri Valley every game is a playoff game. There’s no teams you’re going out there and taking lightly.”

Only 24 teams make the NCAA Division I Football Championship playoffs. The Salukis will either have to win the MVFC to receive an automatic bid, or risk their fate with an at-large bid.

First-year quarterback coach Nick Hill said he does not see any reason why the Salukis will perform any worse in the second half of the season to risk their playoff hopes.

“This is what people come to college for, this is why they’ve all been highly recruited to come here,” Hill said. “When you set your goals at the beginning of the season it’s not for the first six games, it’s for the last six games, it’s winning championships.”

In the first half of the season the Salukis’ only loss was to Purdue. SIU is in the top 20 of several FCS statistic categories, which includes scoring offense and sacks allowed.


Individually, Iannotti is ninth in total passing yards.

Iannotti said receivers make it easy for him to be ranked so highly in passing yards.

“With MyCole making the plays that he is and the burners on the outside like Tay [Willis] and [LaSteven McKinney], it’s kind of hard not to throw for that many yards,” Iannotti said. “You just put the ball in their hands and let them make plays.”

Senior tight end MyCole Pruitt is ninth in receiving yards, and senior running back Malcolm Agnew is eighth in rushing yards.

Pruitt’s numbers this season are propelling him into special company. He sits third all-time in receiving yards in SIU history with 2,289 yards. He was also voted the best tight end in MVFC history on Tuesday.

These accolades have earned Pruitt NFL attention; scouts have been at most of the Saluki games this season.

The All-American tight end said while playing in the NFL next season is on his mind; he is focused on the remainder of this season.

“I’ve just got to keep producing every week, and everything will fall in place,” he said. “Most of my focus is on this team and doing everything I can do for this team and producing every Saturday out there.”

On defense the Salukis returned nine starters from 2013, and have lived up to the hype. The Salukis rank No. 2 in team sacks and No. 20 in scoring defense.

Outside linebacker Tyler Williamson said his team’s defense plays so well because of the veteran leadership. He said the team would have to prepare the same way it has been for the remainder of the season.

“You have to know the opponent you’re going against every week. It’s either a ranked opponent or a team that was ranked,” Williamson said. “You can’t come in too high or too low so you have to be prepared every week. It’s just a consistent mindset.”

Williamson said he thinks some players like junior defensive end Adam Brandt, and freshman safety Ryan Neal have stepped up to contribute to the Saluki defense.

Hill said that the coaching staff would not change how it prepares the team for the remaining six games.

“We’ve just got to keep finding ways to win,” he said. “A couple times this season our offense has had a couple of three-and-outs, or maybe not scored points, but our defense continues to get us the ball back until we get going … but obviously we’ve got to get better in all the phases.”

The Salukis start the second half of the season against No. 1 North Dakota State. The Bison have not lost in 29 straight games, and the Salukis have not beaten a top-ranked team since 2005.

Williamson said he thinks this is the year those things change.

Tony McDaniel can be reached at [email protected], on Twitter @tonymcdanielDE or at 536-3311 ext. 256