Oct 7, 2012
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, IL - Southern Illinois entered Saturday's contest as a heavy underdog, a challenger not taken seriously by many. Illinois State merely needed to show up and take care of business. The media likes these kind of easy narratives.
From the opening kickoff, however, SIU was relentless. The Salukis won, 17-0, and dominated the No. 9-ranked Redbirds in a manner that requires you to reconsider your opinion of this 3-3 squad.
1. How good was Southern's defense? The Redbirds were averaging almost 40 points per game before SIU hung a goose-egg on them. Quarterback Matt Brown had thrown just three interceptions in five games, but the Salukis picked him off four times. It was SIU's first shutout since the 2009 season and the third of the Dale Lennon-Bubba Schweigert era.
2. The Salukis didn't stifle Illinois State's spread offense by drawing up any fancy blitzes or taking unnessary gambles. They did it the old-fashioned way -- with crisp open-field tackling and guys getting into the right position to make plays.
3. There was a story on ESPN Saturday morning about how tackling is a lost art at the college level. Coaches don't want to work on it too much for fear of injury, and then their teams get exposed by the spread offense in real games. From the first day of camp, Southern has worked on its tackling. The improvement over last year is night and day, and the staff deserves kudos for making it a point of emphasis.
4. SIU's defense is fast and under-sized, and constantly rotates in fresh bodies so players don't get worn down. Depth played a critical role in the victory when stud OLB Jayson DiManche left the game in the second quarter with an injury. In came sophomore Tyler Williamson, a freckle-faced sophomore who looks like he has yet to shave. He proceeded to lead the team with seven tackles, make a couple of huge stops behind the line and pick off a pass. He may look like Opie Taylor, but on Saturday, the MVFC Player-of-the-Week played like Lawrence Taylor.
6. Once Southern got the lead with Anthony Thompson's blocked punt return in the first quarter, the offense took few chances. It was a windy day at Hancock Stadium, and with the defense playing so well, the coaches saw no need to risk a big turnover. There were some new wrinkles in the running game, but there were very few downfield passes.
7. SIU's offense produced a modest 182 total yards, and a large chunk of the yardage (98 yards) came on three plays. While the offense didn't move the ball consistently, at least it was able to bust some big plays.
8. The play-of-the-game by the offense came in the third quarter with Southern backed up to its own 18 and facing a 3rd-and-1. If it had been forced to punt into the wind, Illinois State would have had great field position and a chance to cut into the Salukis' 10-0 lead. Play it safe and run the ball for the first down, right? Instead, offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer dialed up a play-action pass in which Kory Faulkner hit TE MyCole Pruitt down the middle for a 32-yard gain. It was a gutsy call and perfectly executed.
9. That play notwithstanding, Southern needs more big plays from its passing game. There were only seven pass completions on the day, and most of them went for short yardage. Since passing for 384 yards against SEMO on Sept. 15, Faulkner has 269 passing yards combined in the last three games.
10. Saturday's win could be a game that changes the trajectory of the season. The Salukis were also 2-3 last year heading into game six. In that game, Youngstown State had a huge second half to rally for a win over the Dawgs, sending SIU into a four-game tailspin. The victory over the Redbirds could help the Salukis reboot their 2012 season.