Southern Illinois defensive end Richie Hagarty (52) has five quarterback sacks in the last three games. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Dan Verdun
Southern Illinois has played four of their first six games on the road this season. Yet, Saturday the Salukis return to Carbondale for Homecoming.
“That’s a long road trip,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said during SIU’s weekly Zoom conference. “We’re excited to come back and play in front of our home fans.”
Hill, an SIU graduate himself, told his team earlier this week to focus on the task at hand.
“We’re not coming home, we’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve got one job to do and that is to play the football game, and let everybody else have a good time.”
SIU (4-2, 3-0) enters Saturday’s 2 p.m. Missouri Valley Football Conference game with rival Western Illinois (0-5, 0-2). The matchup will also be a Rochester High School reunion of sorts.
Each team features three players from coach Derek Leonard’s prep powerhouse: quarterback Nic Baker, along with twin brothers Avante and D’Ante Cox at receiver, for SIU going against quarterback Clay Bruno, receiver Cade Eddington and running back Jacob Durocher for WIU.
“We’re glad with the ones we’ve got and it’s got to be a proud moment as a coach to see two (of your) quarterbacks line up to start against each other. That’s just a credit to him and what he’s built there at Rochester,” Hill said of Leonard.
Additionally, Leatherneck assistant coach Zach Grant is also a former Rochester player and close friend of Leonard.
Hill said he’s had “an inside look” at the Rochester program since his brother AJ Hill has been on the Rocket staff the past three years.
“I don’t know if there is a better (high school) coach in the state than Derek (and) what he does year in and year out with that program,” Hill said, citing that the Rockets are often undersized in the offensive and defensive lines.
“He just does phenomenal job finding ways to win football games,” Hill continued. “The amount of quarterbacks that have come out of the there (is impressive).”
Prairie State Pigskin explored the impact of Rochester on the state’s FCS programs this past summer.
This week’s opponent
Western Illinois is winless in its first five games. The Leathernecks — under first-year head coach Myers Hendrickson — are coming off their bye week.
WIU has struggled to run the ball. The Leathernecks average only 2.7 yards per attempt and have just one rushing touchdown this season.
“When they’ve gone on scoring drives, they’ve run the football,” Hill said.
Bruno has started the last two games at quarterback for Western. The junior leads the team in both rushing and passing.
“He’s a lot like Nic,” Hill said. “(He) has an arm and can run the football.”
Defensively, the Leathernecks are giving up 41.4 points per game. Opponents have averaged 505.8 yards of offense per game against Western.
(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio: Varsity Network App)
Key matchup to watch
SIU run game vs. WIU defense: Though the Salukis have been bitten by injuries in their running back room, SIU has still kept the ball on the ground 55 percent of its offensive plays.
Despite sitting out last weekend’s game, junior Ro Elliott leads the team with 308 yards rushing. He averages five yards per carry.
Javon Williams Jr. has come on strong of late. The redshirt junior captured his fourth career MVFC Offensive Player of the Week award after scoring two touchdowns and totaling 121 yards of offense (45 rushing, 39 receiving, 37 passing) in SIU’s 38-21 win at Missouri State.
Western, meanwhile, is surrendering nearly 231 ground yards per game and 5.2 yards per attempt.
What’s at stake?
SIU puts its four-game winning streak on the line. The Salukis have won two straight and three of the last five matchups with the Leathernecks.
Western leads the all-time series, 36-25 with four ties.
SIU surrendered a combined 98 points as it lost the first two games of the season. Beginning with their Sept. 17 win at Northwestern, the Salukis have clamped down and are averaging of 19 points against per game . . . In addition, SIU has forced six turnovers, four of which were interceptions during the winning streak . . . Leonard will attend Saturday’s game, according to Hill.