Kory Faulkner must take shots at the end zone on Saturday.
Aug 28, 2013
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Southern Illinois will be a heavy underdog at Illinois on Saturday. That's not exactly breaking news for Saluki football fans.
Perhaps you're tired of hearing how an FCS team isn't supposed to beat an FBS program, much less one that plays in the Big Ten. You're aware that Illinois has 85 players on scholarship, compared to 63 for your heroes in maroon and white. You wince when reminded of the last time the teams met, when Illinois drubbed Southern, 35-3, in 2010.
Yes, the deck is stacked against Southern Illinois, but all hope is not lost.
If you're looking for a blueprint on how an FCS team can beat a Big Ten team, the 2006 Salukis rendered a textbook example in their 35-28 win over Indiana. To pull off an upset at Illinois, the 2013 team must replicate these keys victory.
Establish the running game. In 2006, the Salukis out-gained Indiana on the ground, 244-76. Hall of Fame running back Arkee Whitlock rushed for 103 yards, and he had help from a balanced attack that included Kansas transfer John Randle (37 yards), fullback J.T. Wise (42 yards), and backup QB Justin Allen, who carried four times for 37 yards out of the Wildcat formation.
Likewise, this year's team has multiple backfield threats in FBS transfers Mika'il McCall, Ken Malcome and Malcolm Agnew. They have speed in Tay Willis and LaSteven McKinney. Quarterback Kory Faulkner is athletic enough to pick up yardage on his own. It will take a combined effort from this group, behind an improved offensive line, to generate the type of rushing yardage SIU will need to be competitive.
Similarly, the 2013 Saluki defense is geared to stop the run. Bubba Schweigert's 3-4 scheme is counting on stout nose guard play from TJ Beelen and Raysean Golden to free up its speedy corps of linebackers. If the Salukis can't slow the Illinois run game, it will have little chance of winning.
Avoid an early knockout punch. It took just 10 minutes for Indiana to build a 14-0 lead in 2006. Fans were heckling the Salukis and eager to enjoy a blowout. What did the Salukis do? Battle back, of course! A key turning point was an interception by Craig Turner in the end zone that prevented IU from taking a three-touchdown lead.
The last time SIU played a BCS opponent was in 2011, when Mississippi bolted to a 21-0 lead in the first six minutes. Although Southern outscored the Rebels, 24-21, the rest of the way, it could not overcome its slow start. The longer SIU stays in the game at Illinois, the more pressure will build on the home team.
Make the big play when it's available. Quarterback Nick Hill only completed 10 passes at Indiana, but four of them went for touchdowns and he didn't throw an interception. Four different receivers caught TD passes. Likewise, Kory Faulkner needs to take shots at the end zone. He also has a variety of weapons, including tight ends MyCole Pruitt and Adam Fuehne, who can produce in the red zone.
Play mistake-free football. The Salukis turned the ball over only once at Indiana on a fumble. They must avoid the dramatic momentum swing that comes when the home team makes a huge play off a turnover. At Ole Miss, Paul McIntosh threw an interception on Southern's first drive, and it was returned to SIU's four yardline. One play later it was a 14-0 ballgame. On the Salukis' second drive, they went 3-and-out, punted and had the kick returned 67 yards for a TD. Southern must avoid big mistakes in Champaign.
If the Salukis can do these five things, they will upset Illinois.
How much difference is there in talent level between a Big Ten and an MVFC team? Just read through the bios of the Illinois starters and you'll noticed that many of them were 3 or 4-star recruits out of high school. Their third-string quarterback is a 4-star recruit named Aaron Bailey. Those type of players rarely land at an FCS program.
Here's another way to quantify the talent gap between the conferences. Last year, Illinois had four players selected in the NFL Draft. That's the same number of draft picks the Salukis have had in the last 20 years combined.
The number one concern for Southern's defense is Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. This is the same quarterback who carved Southern's defense up three years ago as a true freshman, completing 14-of-18 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns. During his first two seasons, he had 30 touchdown passes and only 16 interceptions. He also ran for nearly 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. Clearly, he's a dangerous dual threat. In 2011, he was the MVP of the bowl victory over UCLA. Ignore Scheelhaase's 2012 statistics (4 TDs, 8 INTs). He was hurt much of the year after suffering a high-ankle sprain in the season opener.
Illinois has a new offensive coordinator in Bill Cubit, a guy who had some high-powered offenses during his eight-year tenure as head coach at Western Michigan. In an interview after the team's spring game, he was pretty candid about the shortcomings of the offense he inherited. He said the technique of quarterbacks Scheelhaase and Ryan O'Toole "wasn't very pretty," and "route running was not a big priority here" for the receivers.
Nevertheless, Cubit has a solid reputation as an offensive guru. He's talked about making the Illinois attack more north-and-south, speeding up the tempo, and devising special packages to fit personnel groups. Looking at game tape of Western Michigan won't help SIU much, since he had different personnel. The Saluki coaches will need to adjust on the fly on Saturday.
After an unseasonably mild first half of August, the last week or so has seen temperatures sky-rocket. Saturday's projected high of 94, with a heat index near 100, will test the conditioning of both teams. On one hand, Illinois has the advantage of 22 more scholarships, but on the other hand, SIU is accustomed to wholesale substitutions on defense.