Receiver D’Ante Cox was chosen as Missouri Valley Football Conference Newcomer of the Week for his career-high performance against Illinois State. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Dan Verdun
You don’t have to blink once. You don’t have to blink twice. Those are indeed twins running routes for Southern Illinois.
Wearing No. 11 is Avante Cox, who leads the Salukis with 23 receptions. Wearing No. 2 is his twin brother D’Ante, who after a career-best 102 receiving yards against Illinois State, tops the team with 273 receiving yards.
“They’re really interchangeable,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said of the twins. “We don’t tell them who’s at Z and who’s at X (on a given play). Multiple times in this game, Avante told D’Ante’ ‘take the slot, I’ll block for you.’”
No doubt they will also be a focus when Missouri State hosts SIU in a key Top 20 showdown in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The Salukis (3-2, 2-0) are ranked No. 17 in this week’s Stats Perform FCS rankings. Missouri State (2-3, 0-2) is No. 20.
The Cox twins played alongside quarterback Nic Baker at downstate Rochester High School, where they teamed up for state prep playoff runs and championships.
“We hung out a little bit (in high school) but not as much as everybody thought,” D’Ante said of Avante.
Following high school, each brother went his separate ways. Avante signed with the University of Wyoming in FBS, while D’Ante wound up at Missouri Baptist in Division II.
D’Ante later transferred to the University of Illinois where he walked on but did not play in 2018.
“We wanted to find our own identity,” D’Ante said. “The time away from each other was the time we needed. We’re a lot closer now. We still have other friendships outside of (our common) friendships.
“When he transferred here (to SIU), Avante said you should come here. Coach Hill gave me a call and said, ‘your brother is tearing it up. You should come join him.’”
Both players have been slowed by injuries in their SIU careers. Avante, a preseason Walter Payton Award candidate, started out the season banged up.
Meanwhile, D’Ante is coming off consecutive seasons with serious knee injuries. He’s certainly bounced back strong, and Hill isn’t surprised by his success.
“(It’s been) back-to-back weeks with explosive plays out of him,” Hill said. “We haven’t had those two on the same field much since they’ve been here. The biggest thing that I’m proud of with D’Ante is just sticking with it. He’s been through some tough times.”
Back together and catching passes and taking handoffs or pitches from Baker, the Cox twins are indeed tearing it up together.
“It’s like getting back to those 2016 days (when Rochester won a state title). Great connections, great friendships. We all love each other,” D’Ante said.
This week’s opponent
Missouri State is stinging from last weekend’s 48-31 loss at North Dakota. This after holding a 21-20 halftime lead. The Bears fell 13 spots in the FCS rankings as a result.
Quarterback Jason Shelley, a transfer from Utah State, leads the high-octane Missouri State offense. The Bears average nearly 370 yards and 27 points per game.
Shelley was both the conference’s Newcomer of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year in 2021.
“He’s one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country. I have a lot of respect for him,” Hill said.
(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: Varsity Network App)
Key matchup to watch
SIU offense vs. Missouri State defense:
The Salukis were clicking in last week’s first half at Illinois State, building a 19-0 lead. However, SIU struggled in the second half, mustering only 75 yards and scoring no points in a 19-14 win.
Missouri State surrendered 515 total yards — 267 in the air and 248 on the ground — in its loss at North Dakota.
“We didn’t come out of the locker room and play the type of defense we’re used to playing here,” head coach Bobby Petrino told Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “It always starts with stopping the run and to stop the run, you gotta tackle. Particularly on first-and-10, they had way too many second-and-4, second-and-3 and that really hurt our defense.”
Injuries have decimated the Missouri State interior defensive line. The Bears hope to get some of the ailing back for Saturday.
SIU is ranked second in points scored (144, 28.8 per game average), while Missouri State ranks ninth in points allowed (158, 31.6) in the 11-team league statistics.
What’s at stake?
SIU, which plays four of its first six games on the road, desires a win to remain atop the MVFC standings along with North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
SIU defensive coordinator Jason Petrino is a cousin to Missouri State head coach Bobby Petrino . . . The Salukis have won three straight games after starting the year 0-2 . . . Special teams remain a concern for SIU. The Salukis had an extra point miss and an extra point blocked at Illinois State.
+Barry Bottino contributed to this story.