Revamped run defense features Southern Illinois ‘being the hammer and not the nail’

SIU defensive tackle Keenan Agnew is part of a unit that has allowed nearly 100 fewer yards per game on the ground this season. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

The Southern Illinois defense is on pace for 41 sacks this season, which would be its most since 2000.

But another area of improvement has impressed senior defensive tackle Keenan Agnew even more than badgering quarterbacks.

“I know our pass rush has been great, but what I’m really proud of is how good we are against the run,” he said. “That’s what has really set up our pass rush.”

Just how good have the Salukis been?

They allowed 179.4 yards a game last season. This fall, opponents have rushed for 80.7 yards a game, which ranks ninth in the nation among all FCS teams.

“This year, we’re amazing against the run,” he said. “It’s great to see. That was always a major weakness.”

The No. 14 Salukis (5-2 overall, 4-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference) hope to continue their strong play against the run when they travel Saturday to face South Dakota (1-5, 0-3).

The Coyotes have struggled offensively against a rugged schedule, averaging 12.5 points. Their rushing attack, however, ranks 69th nationally at 132.7 yards.

Agnew said the Salukis have made several adjustments to revamp their run defense.

“I feel like we’re more stout on the defensive line,” he said. “We’re doing a better job of playing vertical and getting upfield. We’re more aggressive. Last year, we were trying to see what kind of block we were going to get and playing the block.

“This year, we’re firing off as hard as we can and reacting to whatever block we get,” he said. “It’s like being the hammer and not the nail. We’re being the hammer.”

That aggressiveness shows in SIU’s 49 tackles for loss this season, led by 6.5 from defensive end Richie Hagarty, 5.5 from cornerback David Miller and 4.5 from Agnew. Six defensive players – including safety P.J. Jules, linebacker Branson Combs and defensive lineman Dewey Green (four each) – have at least four tackles for loss.

As a team, SIU’s 49 TFLs is the sixth-most in the nation.

The Salukis’ changes were driven in part by their final game of 2021, a 38-7 road loss to defending national champion North Dakota State in a second-round playoff game. The Bison rushed for 389 yards that day, averaging 6.3 yards a carry and scoring five touchdowns on the ground.

“I definitely left the FargoDome with a bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “They ran the ball down our throats, and it was embarrassing. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my football career. We got whooped.”

This season, opponents are averaging 2.8 yards a carry and only one running back – Northwestern’s Evan Hull – has surpassed 100 yards against SIU.

This week’s opponent

South Dakota ranks among the 10 worst scoring offenses in FCS at 12.5 points a game. Quarterback Carson Camp is completing a career-low 56.4% of his passes and has thrown four TDs and five interceptions. … Junior linebacker Stephen Hillis was named the MVFC Defensive Player of the Week after he had 10 tackles, two sacks and two pass breakups against Illinois State last week in a 12-10 loss. … The Coyotes are 1-5 against a schedule that has a combined record of 26-12.

(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

SIU pass rush vs. South Dakota O-line: The Coyotes rank 118th nationally this season in sacks allowed with 23. The Salukis, on the other hand, lead the nation and the MVFC in total sacks with 26. Twelve different SIU players have at least one sack this season.

What’s at stake?

A victory would keep SIU unbeaten and in first place in the MVFC. It would also mark a six-game winning streak, the Salukis’ longest since winning 11 in a row – including a first-round playoff game – in 2009 under head coach Dale Lennon.

Quick hits

After his record-setting game Saturday against Western Illinois, SIU junior quarterback Nic Baker ranks seventh nationally with a 70.4% completion percentage. The MVFC said Monday that Baker’s 25-for-28 effort (89.3%) against WIU is believed to be a single-game league record. … South Florida transfer wide receiver Bryce Miller, a sixth-year senior, played in his first game of the season at Northwestern last month. Since then, he has 14 receptions and a touchdown while averaging 9.8 yards a catch. “I think the best days for him in our offense are ahead of him,” SIU coach Nick Hill said of Miller, who had elbow surgery over the summer and missed fall camp. Miller had a season-best five catches and 52 yards at Illinois State. … Senior wide receiver Avante Cox broke a school record with a reception in his 39th consecutive game against Western. Hill said Cox is likely to play against South Dakota despite sustaining a sprained ankle last week. Tight end Tyce Daniel (shoulder) will not play, according to Hill.

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