For Southern Illinois, there will be fall football after all
Monday at 9:38 pm
The simple task of opening his computer and watching game film is something Nick Hill has done hundreds of times.
Over the past few days, it has been an exhilarating experience.
“It felt so good,” the Southern Illinois head football coach said Monday. “I felt normal. It gets you excited.”
For the first time since November 2019, Hill and the Salukis have a game to prepare for after Monday’s announcement that SIU will host regional rival Southeast Missouri at 6 p.m. Oct. 23 in Carbondale.
The Salukis are the only Illinois FCS team thus far to play a game amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re really excited that we have something on the schedule,” Hill said during a media conference call. “Just keeping it quiet has been the toughest thing.”
Players were informed Friday about the annual War for the Wheel trophy game during a Zoom call, but told they couldn’t share the news on social media or with anyone else, Hill said.
“You could feel the buzz,” he said. “This is what they love to do. It will mean a lot to our players and a lot to our school.”
Pros vs. cons
Hill said he has been speaking for several weeks with SEMO head coach Tom Matukewicz about the rivalry game.
Both coaches agreed that the pros of playing the 88th game between SIU and SEMO – the Nos. 24 and 25 ranked teams in the STATS FCS preseason poll – outweighed the cons.
“We’ve talked about a lot of pros for our program,” said Hill, whose team narrowly missed the FCS playoffs after finishing 7-5 last fall, and enjoyed a 5-game winning streak during the Missouri Valley Football Conference season.
Hill said the benefits include players having a game to focus on, the opportunity to practice with a purpose and to ensure everyone in the program continues to follow health protocols closely. In addition, players won’t lose a year of eligibility playing in the fall, and Hill noted a recent ruling that fall games can count toward FCS playoff consideration for the 16-team spring postseason bracket.
The game is beneficial since SEMO can drive the 50 miles to Carbondale, play the game, then return home after the contest.
The major concern, of course, is players, coaches or support staff contracting the disease and spreading it throughout the program.
“Hopefully we can create the safest environment possible,” Hill said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to make this go as smoothly as possible.”
For his players, who are being tested weekly, Hill said his message is “the best chance you have to play in this game is to follow all the rules – strictly – when you’re away from the building. The one thing we’ve learned in these times is nothing’s guaranteed.”
Attendance at SIU
SIU announced that it is working on a plan to have a limited number of fans and students in attendance at the game, and Hill said he is hoping a TV network will step in to televise the game.
“It will feel good to go out and play a game in front of our fans,” he said.
Just as he expects his players to follow health guidelines, Hill encouraged fans to do the same.
“I listen to the protocols that are in place, and I just do it,” he said. “I don’t sit around and complain. You’re just wasting your time doing that. I wear a mask. I social distance, and we attack the day. That’s what I would ask of our fans.
“Whatever procedures they put in place for the game, come and be excited that we’re watching football,” he said. “That means we’re moving in the right direction.”
Hill encouraged fans to bring their outdoor voices Oct. 23 to Saluki Stadium.
“They’re not going to tell you that you can’t be loud,” he said. “You’re outside, so be as loud as you can.”
Hill said because of Carbondale’s location among several Ohio Valley Conference teams, “it gives us an opportunity that a lot of other schools around the country don’t have,” he said, specifically mentioning OVC members Eastern Illinois (located 160 miles north in Charleston) and Murray State (113 miles south in Murray, Ky.).
Would the Salukis consider adding another opponent that could be a one-day driving trip?
“Yes,” he said simply.
EIU officials told Prairie State Pigskin Monday that the Panthers are focused on the seven-game spring OVC schedule at this time.
“While we would like for our student-athletes to compete this fall, we continue to evaluate things, and at this time Eastern Illinois will be playing its schedule as the seven games in the spring as part of the Ohio Valley Conference schedule,” officials said in an e-mailed statement.
The Panthers began their NCAA-permitted spring football model practice schedule Monday, according to school officials.
Murray State’s website lists its regularly scheduled 2020 schedule with non-conference games all marked as canceled and OVC games as postponed.