Sept. 2, 2012
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, IL - After Thursday night's 49-28 loss to Eastern Illinois, everyone's been asking me what's going on with the Saluki football team. So here's my take.
1. Coach Lennon said the loss was his fault and that of his coaching staff. He said the team was not prepared to play. That statement can be interpreted many ways, but let me tell you what I think he meant.
2. When you fumble the ball five times in your first game, you immediately wonder if you did enough live scrimmaging in camp? There's a fine line between doing enough live contact work to get ready for a real game, and doing so much live hitting that guys get hurt. At the FCS level, you don't have enough scholarships to risk leaving all of your best shots on the practice field. Nevertheless, I suspect Lennon would have scheduled another live scrimmage or two, if he had it to do over. Oddly, though, in the two scrimmages Southern held, turnovers were not an issue.
3. I believe the "prepared to play" statement also relates to the complexity of the offense. In the spring, I remember Coach DeBoer telling me they wanted to expand the passing tree and make more vertical throws. Southern has a big playbook, but the execution on Thursday night was not precise, particularly along the offensive line. The offensive coaches may have to scale back their game plan and come up with a handful of bread and butter plays.
4. Speaking of the offensive line, it's a mess right now. There's no other way to describe it. I tried to keep track of how many players were used at each position. By my count, there were three different right tackles, two right guards, two centers, three left guards and two left tackles. That would be fine during the course of an 11-game season, but if it takes place during a 60-minute game, you have a problem.
5. Specifically, the protection (both linemen and running backs) struggled to pick up blitzes. There were too many free shots on the quarterback. The shotgun snap was an adventure, with balls high, wide and low. A couple of them rolled back to the quarterback. It's a bad sign when a guy who just arrived in town the week before, Toledo transfer Ethan Wirth, is thrust into the fray.
6. It's difficult to evaluate the quarterback play when he's taking so much punishment, not to mention scooping up bad center snaps. Kory Faulkner did complete 31 passes for 293 yards, but he was sacked three times and was often flat on his back after a throw. Some of Faulkner's passes sailed. He threw a couple of picks. I do think SIU has a very good quarterback in Faulkner, but we won't know for sure until the rest of the offense executes better.
7. The running game, which is in part a product of the run blocking, was inadequate. Take away Steve Strother's 24-yard carry, and he averaged two yards per attempt. I'd definitely like to see more of Mika'il McCall, who averaged 5.1 yards and showed the ability to break tackles. Southern can and must do a better job of establishing the run. When an offensive line is struggling in pass protection, run blocking can give them some confidence.
8. The wide receivers made 21 of the 33 receptions, but they could have made even more plays. There were some 50-50 balls that they didn't come down with. There appeared to be a lot of grabbing and pushing from the Eastern secondary that bothered Southern's wideouts. The jury is still out, but I think LaSteven McKinney (8 catches), David Lewis (7 catches) and John Lantz (6 catches) can give SIU an effective passing game.
9. Where to start on defense? Ok, how about the secondary? It surrendered 433 yards and seven touchdown passes. Those numbers are downright ugly. Eastern ran a no-huddle offense and whipped the ball around the field. Most of the game was played outside the hashmarks. The defensive strategy was to give receivers a generous cushion and come up and make the tackle. Don't give up the big play. The problem was, SIU struggled with not just the short pass, but the intermediate and deep ones as well. Whether guys were confused by the offensive scheme or just unsure of their assignments, there was too much paralysis among the defensive backs. There is too much talent among this group for such a performance.
10. If you want to find a bright spot, Southern's front seven was solid. It stuffed EIU's running game for an average of 2.2 yards per carry, and did a decent job getting pressure on the quarterback with four sacks. If Eastern ran a more traditional offense, I'm sure SIU would have had the advantage.
11. Freshman Austin Johnson made his debut at kicker and missed a 27-yard attempt. Those should be gimmes, but it's too small a sample size to draw any conclusions. Austin Pucylowski had a great day punting the ball, averaging 47.3 yards and dropping three balls inside the 20.
12. If you thought Eastern's offense was difficult to defend, the task is much more difficult this week at Miami of Ohio. They have NFL prospects at quarterback (Zac Dysert) and wide receiver (Nick Harwell). In fact, some consider Harwell a potential first-round talent. Ignore the score of their game at Ohio State, the Redhawks are one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference and one of the top 50 teams in college football.