Motivation, playoff hopes abound for 15th-ranked SIU in regular-season finale
today at 6:15 am
Sixth-year wide receiver Landon Lenoir (17) and the Southern Illinois Salukis hope to flex their muscles Saturday against Youngstown State to impress the FCS playoff committee. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
A win Saturday in Carbondale against Youngstown State will open a world of possibilities for the Southern Illinois Salukis.
Within reach for SIU (7-3 overall, 5-2 Missouri Valley Football Conference) is the program’s best overall and league records since 2009, a likely spot in the FBS playoffs, a potential top-8 postseason seed and a share of the conference championship if North Dakota State loses.
With a win today, the No. 15 Salukis also can send off their 25 seniors — including 17 players that are sixth-year seniors who took advantage of an NCAA-allowed COVID year of extra eligibility — on a positive note.
No matter the story line, SIU’s veteran roster has plenty of motivation.
“Every game is a must win,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said. “This team doesn’t need a bunch of narratives to go out and play. I told the seniors that the focus has to be on us playing well, and it will be. There’s a lot to play for.”
Nine of those sixth-year seniors committed to the program after the team went 3-8 in 2015 and Hill took over as a 30-year-old head coach who was elevated from the offensive coordinator role at SIU.
“It’s tough for me to think about all those guys, not only the nine guys that have been here for six years, but some of these fifth-year seniors who are not going to come back,” he said. “There’s so many guys here that committed to the vision of the program when we were 3-8 or had three straight losing seasons. They changed the course of this program.”
That group includes safety Qua Brown, defensive end Anthony Knighton, wide receiver Landon Lenoir, linebacker Bryce Notree and guard ZeVeyon Furcron – a who’s who of the Salukis’ most impactful players and leaders this season.
“The relationships with the players are the most important,” Hill said. “But for me, we’ve got so much more to go. This team’s got more games to play and hopefully more home games to play. If we win this game, we’ve positioned ourselves to have a home playoff game. That’s the vision they’ve got to have.”
At a time of the year when mock playoff brackets and scoreboard watchers abound, Hill said he and his staff don’t pay attention to the postseason predictions.
“It doesn’t matter what anybody else does,” he said. “I know if we win eight games, we’re going to be in. That’s the focus. I couldn’t even tell you who needs to win and who needs to lose.”
Up and running
After back-to-back losses, the Salukis rebounded last week with a 47-21 victory at Indiana State.
The victory came in part thanks to 282 rushing yards, the second-highest team total in a game this season. SIU had eight runs of 10 yards or longer.
“We’ve got to have those explosive runs,” Hill said. “I feel like we have weapons (in the run game). When we can have explosive runs in a series, this offense really gets going.”
Nine different players carried the ball against the Sycamores, and seven of them had a run longer than 10 yards.
Youngstown State (2-7, 1-6) has its own dynamic runner in 5-foot-9 senior Jaleel McLaughlin.
A former Division II All-American who transferred from Notre Dame College in Ohio, McLaughlin has 954 yards this fall, which ranks second in the MVFC and ninth in the country.
“They’ve got one of the best backs in the country,” Hill said. “He’s electrifying. He can score every time he touches the ball. He’s really something special.”
McLaughlin has five 100-yard games this fall and nine touchdowns for the Penguins.
Secondary a primary strength
Despite losing All-American cornerback James Ceasar to injury, the secondary has been a strength for SIU this season.
Last week, freshman corner David Miller had two interceptions and earned the MVFC Defensive Player of the Week Award.
Hill said recruiting quality depth at the position has paid dividends in light of Ceasar’s injury.
Miller starts at one cornerback while sophomore P.J. Jules starts at the other spot.
“I think P.J. is a top two or three cornerback in the league,” Hill said. “He doesn’t get a lot of action. He plays a lot of man-to-man coverage.”
Sophomore D.J. Johnson, a transfer from Purdue who became eligible in recent weeks, has been a valuable addition.
“I think he’s a high-level player as well,” Hill said of Johnson, who has five tackles in two games.
Regardless of the result against Youngstown State, the Salukis will be watching closely Sunday morning when the FCS playoff pairings are revealed.
ESPNU will unveil the FCS bracket beginning at 11:30 a.m. First-round games will take place Saturday, Nov. 27.
Where to find the game
The Salukis will kick off at noon on Saturday, Nov. 20 in Carbondale against Youngstown State. The game will be televised on ESPN-Plus. To hear the radio call, visit CILFM.com.