Oct. 5, 2013
By Tom Weber
BROOKINGS, S.D. - You can say one thing about Saluki Football. It isn't boring. For the fourth time in six games, the outcome wasn't decided until the final minute. The big difference for Southern Illinois on Saturday was that this time, it came out on top, beating South Dakota State, 27-24.
After dropping heartbreakers to Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Youngstown State, SIU seems to have learned how to win a close game. There were many keys (and key players) to this victory.
1. The field conditions were poor, due to a high school game that was played at Coughlin Stadium last night during a rainstorm. It looked like a stampede of cattle had been driven between the hashmarks. The Salukis didn't let the turf issues affect them.
2. Despite the sloppy footing, the Salukis had no trouble running the ball, averaging nearly five yards per carry. If you like power football, you would have loved SIU's first drive. All 80 yards came on the ground, and the Jackrabbits seemed stunned by the Salukis' smashmouth game plan. In the first five games, SIU ran the ball 49 percent of the time. This afternoon, they ran it 64 percent of the time.
3. Malcolm Agnew's best two games this season have come on natural grass. He had 127 yards against SEMO at Busch Stadium and needed only 17 carries to pile up 105 yards at South Dakota State. He runs with a low center of gravity and rarely seems to slip on muddy turf. Likewise, Ken Malcome appears to be a mudder. The Georgia transfer is not flashy, but he is a load to bring down. He had 50 yards on 11 tries in his best performance of the year.
4. A key momentum swing took place just before halftime. With the score tied, 10-10, Southern had the ball 1st-and-10 at the SDSU 12. The Salukis had all three timeouts left and, at worst, expected to be up a field goal at halftime. Instead, QB Kory Faulkner had his sideline pass intercepted and returned 88 yards for a Jackrabbits touchdown. It was at least a 10-point swing.
6. Special teams played a key role in the victory. Saluki kicker Thomas Kinney bounced back from a crucial missed PAT last week to make a pair of long field goals (35 and 42 yards) and all three PATs. His counterpart for South Dakota State was not so fortunate. He could have given his team the lead midway through the third quarter, but his 38-yard attempt came out low and was blocked by Brandon Williams.
7. After Kinney put SIU ahead, 20-17, on a 42-yard field goal, the defense came up with its first, big turnover. On 4th-and-3 from the SIU 27, SDSU wide receiver Cam Jones picked up first-down yardage, only to have the ball stripped by Saluki corner Terrell Wilson. Anthony Thompson recovered for Southern to extinguish the drive.
8. Backup linebacker Cameron James made a huge play when he downed an Austin Pucylowski punt at the SDSU 3 yard line early in the fourth quarter. The Saluki defense held, and SIU marched 65 yards for its final touchdown, giving SIU what seemed like a comfortable 27-17 lead with 7:15 remaining in the game.
9. The lead felt even more secure when the defense forced another big turnover -- this time the fumble was recovered by LB Bryan Presume at midfield. With just 6:18 to go, at worst, SIU was going to run three plays, force South Dakota State to use its timeouts and pin them deep in their own territory still down by 10.
10. In the blink of an eye, the momentum flipped right back to the Jackrabbits. On second down, Faulkner correctly diagnosed an SDSU run blitz coming. He threw a seemingly safe swing pass to WR LaSteven McKinney, who fumbled the ball back to the home team.
11. Six plays later, the Jackrabbits scored a touchdown to pull within 27-24 with 4:04 to go. A fired up crowd sensed a dramatic comeback about to transpire. For the Salukis, it was a case of here we go again.
12. Sure enough, SIU's offense went 3-and-out and punted the ball back to the Jackrabbits at their own 25, leaving them 2:58 to work with. Thoughts of last year's 98-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes, in which South Dakota State eliminated SIU from playoff question, had to be racing through Dale Lennon's mind.
13. QB Austin Sumner's first pass attempt on the final drive was intercepted by Presume. Or was it? The referee ruled he trapped it. SDSU swiftly moved into SIU territory, until the drive stalled at the SIU 40. On 4th-and-2, S D.J. Cameron reached around WR Trevor Wesley to bat away the ball and secure a critical victory for Southern.
14. The Salukis still have some work to do on defense, where they rank they rank last in the league in pass defense and near the bottom in third-down percentage defense. Amazingly, SDSU converted 8-of-10 third-down attempts in the first half, including a 3rd-and-11, 3rd-and-5, 3rd-and-7, 3rd-and-9, and 3rd-and-8. For the game, they are 12-of-19 on third-down tries. To put that in perspective, North Dakota State's defense, which leads the league, has only allowed 17 third-down conversions (on 69 attempts) all season.
14. Only North Dakota State and Youngstown State remain undefeated in the league after two weeks. The MVFC title race is going to be a slugfest. On to Northern Iowa.