2021 Game Preview: Southern Illinois
WHO ARE THEY?
Southern Illinois and head coach Nick Hill are looking to improve on the best season for the Salukis in over a decade. They finished 6-4 with a second round FCS playoff loss to eventual runner up South Dakota State, 31-26.
Southern Illinois played a tough schedule. 7 of their 10 games came against teams that finished 27th or better in the FCS and 6 against top 15 teams. All four losses came to those top 15 teams, including to No. 2 South Dakota State (twice), No. 6 North Dakota and No. 13 Missouri State.
Their key wins came over No. 5 North Dakota State, No. 20 Southeastern Louisiana, No. 27 Northern Iowa and a road upset of No. 9 Weber State in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
THE OFFENSIVE NUMBERS
The Southern Illinois offense emerged as one of the better units in FCS football during the second half of the season. The Salukis were 15th in the FCS in total offense at 425 yards per game and 27th in scoring at 27.1 points per game.
They were balanced, with the 16th best rushing attack in FCS at 185 yards per game that also finished top 15 in yards per carry. The passing attack was 28th in yards per game at 239, finishing in the top 20 in both yards per attempt and passing efficiency.
The Salukis were also a FCS top 25 squad in red zone offense.
They're a spread team, but they will bring in a fullback/H-Back on a frequent basis. Hill and Southern Illinois will also run reverses and other gadget plays on offense fairly often.
THE OFFENSIVE PERSONNEL
Players to Watch
1. Receivers Avante Cox and Landon Lenoir: At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Cox was one of the best receivers in FCS football and earned first team All-American honors along with first team All-Missouri Valley. He caught 66 balls for 828 yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for 238 yards and a score. Cox had at least four catches in every game this past spring. The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Lenoir emerged as a big threat in the passing game. He finished with 590 yards and four touchdowns. His best stretch came in the last four games where he caught 23 balls for 331 yards and two scores.
2. Running backs Javon Williams and Justin Strong: Williams also finished as a first team All-American at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds and was a second team All-Missouri Valley selection. He was a multi-dimensional threat, rushing for 532 yards and seven touchdowns, catching eight balls for 61 yards and throwing for 237 yards and three touchdowns. K-State must be aware of his abilities to throw as well as run it when he lines up in the Wildcat. Williams was a second team FCS All-American as a freshman when he recorded 1,038 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns, along with 160 yards passing. Strong is listed at 6-foot and 215 pounds. He's a nice compliment in the backfield as a runner and a receiving threat. Strong ran for 408 yards and found the end zone twice on the ground to add to this 274 receiving yards and three scores.
3. Quarterback Stone Labanowitz: He's a bit smaller at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds. Labanowitz emerged as the season progressed, starting the last five games and throwing for 1,241 yards with a 72.4 percent completion rate and eight touchdowns to go with four interceptions. He was also effective escaping the pocket or in the quarterback run game since he finished with 151 yards and another score on the ground.
4. Guard ZeVeyon Furcron: The big man is listed at 6-foot-2 and 327 pounds. Furcron leads the offensive line, starting every game for the last three seasons. He will often line up as a fullback in goal line situations, even scoring a touchdown in the playoff loss to South Dakota State.
THE DEFENSIVE NUMBERS
While the offense the strength, the defense was not. The Saluki defense was not good last season. They finished 70th in the FCS in total defense and allowed 389 yards per game and were 71st in scoring defense after allowing 29.7 points per game.
Southern Illinois allowed 204 rushing yards per game (80th) and 5.2 yards per rush to go with 26 touchdowns. They also finished 31st in passing yards allowed at 185 yards per game, but were 64th in pass efficiency defense.
They allowed plenty of big plays after finishing 83rd in yards per play at 6.1. They were also 78th in red zone defense.
The Salukis line up in a 4-man front with a mix of 4-3 and 4-2-5 alignments.
THE DEFENSIVE PERSONNEL
Players to Watch
1. Cornerback James Ceasar: 5-10 185 Ceasar was one of the best defensive backs in FCS at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds and earned first team All-American and All-Missouri Valley honors. His 14 pass break-ups led the FCS and set a Southern Illinois record. He recorded at least two pass break-ups in half of the Salukis' games.
2. Safety Qua Brown: The 5-foot-11, 206-pound Brown missed four games, but he still finished fourth for the Salukis with 44 tackles and forced four fumbles. He earned second team All-American honors and was a first team all-Missouri Valley selection in following up an impressive 2019 season that featured 105 tackles, including 74 solo.
3. Defensive ends Jordan Berner and Anthony Knighton: Knighton is listed at 6-foot-4 and 251 pounds and has started 44 games in four seasons at Southern Illinois. He led their front four with 35 tackles and finished with 5.5 tackles for loss last season. Berner 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds. He started the last five games last season and recorded four sacks and eight tackles for loss in that stretch.
4. Linebacker Bryson Strong: He's a shorter linebacker at 5-foot-10, but he is listed at 230 pounds. Strong leads the inside of the Saluki linebacking core with 17 starts in the last two years. He led Southern Illinois in tackles last year with 72, recording eight or more in six of their games.
SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES
Nick Hill and company are led on special teams by their kickers. Punter Jack Colquhoun helped the Salukis finish 12th in the FCS in net punting last season. Kicker Nico Gualdoni finished 11 of 13 on field goals in the spring.
The return units are both average, led by running back Javon Williams and his 9.4 yards per punt return. The Salukis blocked three kicks last seasons.
FAN'S SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Southern Illinois finished No. 8 in the FCS last year and returns 20 starters, including 16 sixth-year seniors, so they should be one of the contenders in the FCS. The Missouri Valley will be brutal once again and the Salukis are picked to finish fourth, but behind stalwarts like North Dakota State, South Dakota State and North Dakota.
After a short offseason and a defense with issues, they should still be a team Kansas State handles. The Salukis will likely score some points, but won’t be able to keep up with the K-State offense against their weak defense.
PREDICTION: KANSAS STATE 45, SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 20
DY'S SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
There is no doubt that Kansas State should have zero problems scoring against Southern Illinois. But the Wildcats' question mark is also their defense and the Salukis have a wealth of experience and some weapons on the offensive side of the ball.
Because it is still early in the year and the cohesion, chemistry and comfort won't fully be there for the K-State defense, I can see them sputter a bit on that side of the ball versus the Salukis. Especially since it will be coming off the excitement of playing in AT&T Stadium.
After a slow start, Kansas State should find their footing and put them away by their efficiency on offense. These are the games where a sixth-year quarterback in Skylar Thompson has to calm everything down and re-direct the team on the proper path.