Relentless comeback at Illinois bodes well for 2013 football season

    Jordan Poole sacks Nathan Scheelhaase.

    Jordan Poole sacks Nathan Scheelhaase.

    Aug 31, 2013

    By Tom Weber

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Emotions spilled over in the Southern Illinois locker room just minutes after the team lost to Illinois, 42-34. A 24-point underdog, the Salukis never wavered in the belief they could beat the Fighting Illini. Reality didn't sink in until the Salukis were unable to push across a game-tying score in the final minute.

    1. The story of the game was Southern's relentless comeback from what was once a 22-point deficit. Every time Illinois thought it put the game out of reach in the second half, the Salukis would respond with a score. It reminded me of the movie "Rocky," where Apollo Creed couldn't believe how many punches his opponent could absorb without giving up. Finally, SIU started dealing big blows of its own in the fourth quarter. They came three yards shy of sending the contest to overtime.

    2. Southern's defense did a terrific job stopping the run, holding Illinois to just 49 yards and a 1.6 average. What little yardage the Fighting Illini were able to muster on the ground came late in the game when SIU's front seven started to wear down. To hold a Big Ten team's running game in check is a major accomplishment.

    3. Unfortunately, the Salukis were no match for Illinois' passing game. QB Nathan Scheelhaase's stat line (28-of-36, 416 yards and 2 TDs) was remarkable, especially considering the amount of pressure SIU's defense brought on him. He was sacked four times, but completed three pass plays of 50+ yards, making the Salukis pay when the blitz didn't reach him.

    4. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the game was SIU's lack of a rushing attack, netting just 66 yards and a 2.5 average. Southern's game plan was to establish the run, eat up the clock, control tempo and set up opportunities in the passing game. None of that happened. For those who saw Malcolm Agnew run during the first week of training camp, you know how big an impact he could have had on this game, had he not been sidelined by a hamstring injury.



    5. Kudos to Kory Faulkner for a fine performance. With little running game to speak of, he completed 25-of-40 passes for 312 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Sure, he missed a few throws early, and there were some dropped passes, but his competitiveness and resiliency in the second half shows his game has reached a new level. He looked like a playoff-caliber quarterback today.

    6. Southern's offensive line was solid. Faulkner was never sacked, though he did get hurried and hit on occasion. There were running lanes. Corey Boemer did an admirable job filling in for Ethan Wirth at left tackle. Offensive line coach Bill O'Boyle is bringing this unit along nicely.

    7. It seemed to take forever for Southern's offense to get the ball to All-American tight end MyCole Pruitt, but after he got involved in the passing game late in the first half, he was a force, catching five passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.

    8. It was insufferably hot, forcing both teams to substitute liberally. I was really impressed with the play of some of SIU's second and third-string players. DE Brandon Williams, LB Jordan Poole and CB Chris Davis all had big games coming off the bench. Back-up receivers Tay Willis and Israel Lamprakes made some big catches. This team appears to have good depth.

    9. K Thomas Kinney had a solid performance in his Saluki debut, converting four PATs and field goals of 20 and 41 yards. He also replaced Chris Adams on kickoffs and boomed one out of the end zone. It's been a while since SIU felt this good about its place kicker.

    10. Give credit to SIU's offensive staff for the in-game adjustments it made to get the offense clicking. Piling up 34 points and 407 net yards without much of a running game was an impressive accomplishment. Faulkner told me that Illinois gave them some unexpected looks in the first half, but he credited offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer with adjusting on the fly.

    11. You hate to lose any game, but the kind of resiliency SIU showed against a Big Ten team bodes well for the 2013 season. The Salukis were not physically over-matched versus Illinois. In fact, they seemed to play better as the game progressed. It's a shame we'll never know what would have happened in overtime.

    12. These players and this coaching staff have worked incredibly hard since the end of the 2012 season and deserve your support. The playoffs are a real possibility this year, but the first step takes place next Saturday at Saluki Stadium against Eastern Illinois. See you there.