Salukis confront top seed in national quarterfinal
today at 6:45 am
In a year and season that has featured more twists than a summer blockbuster thriller, Nick Hill’s Southern Illinois Salukis now face an old Missouri Valley Football Conference adversary worthy of what many would call Mission Impossible.
After shocking No. 3-ranked Weber State last weekend, Hill’s Salukis take to the road again. SIU (6-3) next confronts top-seed South Dakota State (6-1), a team that throttled the Salukis March 20 in Carbondale.
“We know what we’re up against. They beat us 44-3. There’s not much more to say,” Hill said during his weekly media address. “Until we go out and do something different about it, you are what the score says you are.”
Resilient is what the Salukis are and have been. SIU has rebounded time and again. Following a spring-opening loss at North Dakota — another Missouri Valley team still alive in the playoffs — the Salukis responded with a three-game winning streak that included blowing out defending national champion North Dakota State.
Then came the humbling home loss to South Dakota State.
“(We were) undisciplined (against SDSU),” Hill said. “We turned it over. They capitalized on them. Really when you look at that game, the middle, about eight minutes . . . the game was completely out of hand.”
SIU’s playoff fortunes appeared out of hand as well. After building a solid halftime lead, the Salukis sustained a shocking last-second loss at Missouri State and then had consecutive games cancelled when Illinois State and Western Illinois opted out of the remainder of the spring.
SIU scrambled and hosted a game with Southeastern Louisiana, another playoff hopeful. A shootout 55-48 victory — along with wins over four other ranked teams — convinced the playoff committee that Hill’s team was worthy of the postseason.
Last weekend’s exhilarating triumph has led to Sunday’s showdown.
Scouting the Jackrabbits
South Dakota State earned No. 1 seed status by virtue of not only the Missouri Valley spring title but also by beating rival and nemesis North Dakota State 27-17 in Fargo.
Hill is well aware just what it will take to upset the Jackrabbits on their home turf.
“Ultimately, to stop their run game you have to be gap sound,” he said. “If you’re out of a gap or misaligned, these backs are going to crush you.”
Those Jackrabbit backs include veteran Pierre Strong, who leads SDSU in rushing. In games in which the junior had double-digit carries this spring, Strong averaged 96 yards a game.
Freshman Isaiah Davis nearly matched Strong’s season total in yardage. Moreover, Davis gashed SIU for 150 yards and three touchdowns in their earlier meeting. Davis ran for a career-best 156 yards in last weekend’s playoff win over Holy Cross.
Then there’s quarterback Mark Gronowski. The true freshman from Naperville grabbed the starting job in preseason camp and wound up the conference’s offensive player of the year. Gronowski — a three-sport prep letterman — was the team’s third-leading rusher. In addition, he has thrown 11 touchdowns while only being intercepted three times.
Defensively, South Dakota State has thrived on turnovers. The Jackrabbits have intercepted opponents 10 times and forced four fumbles. SDSU has racked up 12 sacks and yielded just 14 points a game.
Sunday Night Football
Most college football players aspire to play on Sunday — as professionals in the NFL. This spring’s unique 16-team FCS playoff bracket has the Salukis and Jackrabbits battling in a Sunday night nationally televised tilt.
“I like noon games, but I like football and I like playing in the quarterfinals. So if they tell us to play at midnight, we’ll be ready at midnight,” Hill said.
News & notes
SIU will likely get multi-threat Javon Williams Jr. back for the game. Williams missed the victory over Weber State while in concussion protocol . . . Williams has produced 798 yards this spring (507 rushing, 168 passing, 97 on punt returns and 26 receiving). He has rushed for seven touchdowns and thrown for three scores . . . South Dakota State rushed for nearly 400 yards and turned four SIU turnovers into 24 points when the Jackrabbits steamrolled the Salukis in March . . . Avante Cox leads SIU in receptions (61), receiving yards (780) and touchdowns caught (5). Cox became the fourth receiver in SIU history to have four 100-yard games in a single season. The junior also has 228 rushing yards and a 9.9 per carry average . . . Stone Labanowitz’s remarkable comeback season at quarterback continues. After beginning the year as No. 3 on the depth chart, Labanowitz is completing 73 percent of his passes and has thrown for seven touchdowns against just two interceptions. The Florida native kept SIU’s season alive with a fourth-down TD toss to Branson Combs in the waning seconds at Weber State . . . The last time SIU made the playoffs occurred in 2009 and is also the last time the Salukis reached the quarterfinals. In addition, SIU reached the quarterfinals in 2005 and ’06 . . . SIU won the 1983 national championship and reached the semifinals in 2007 when Hill was the team’s quarterback . . . SIU freshman receiver Sean Larkin was South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski’s prime high school target.
Where to find the game
Sunday’s 8 p.m. game will be televised on ESPN2 and can be heard on the Saluki Radio Network.