All-purpose back Javon Williams Jr. carried the load for the Salukis in last week’s home finale. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Dan Verdun
If the national FCS media is the barometer, then the Missouri Valley Football Conference and subsequently Southern Illinois are in for a down year as far as the playoff picture goes.
Saturday marks the final round of regular- season games leading into Sunday’s 11:30 a.m. unveiling of the postseason bracket on ESPNU.
For SIU (5-5 overall, 4-3 MVFC), that means a trip to Youngstown State (6-4, 4-3). It’s a matchup of two teams that have severely stubbed their toes down the stretch.
HERO Sport Senior FCS Analyst Sam Herder predicted earlier this week that “The MVFC will have anywhere from 2-4 teams in the bracket.”
The obvious two are South Dakota State — ranked No. 1 in FCS and unbeaten in conference play — and North Dakota State, ranked No. 4 and the defending national champion.
“The problem is, after that it drops off hard,” Brian McLaughlin of GridironHeroics.com wrote. “That’s not the way it looked in mid-September with schools like Missouri State and Southern Illinois looking good, but things changed.”
Oh, how they changed.
While Missouri State faded as the calendar turned, SIU continued winning into the middle of October. The Salukis stood at 5-2 overall and 4-0 in the conference.
Then came its current three-game losing streak that dropped SIU from the national rankings and likely the postseason.
In addition, the luster of the early-season road win over Northwestern has also been tarnished a bit as the Wildcats have limped through a 1-9 season to date.
SIU head coach Nick Hill said he won’t be scoreboard-watching Saturday afternoon.
“We’ve just got to go out there and play good football,” Hill said of the regular-season finale. “Whatever happens, the one thing that we can control is that we play in this game.
“I don’t know how else to say it, we need a win. We want to get that winning feeling back, and we’ve got one guaranteed game left so it would be good to get a win.”
In a worst-case postseason scenario, the Missouri Valley gets only South Dakota State and North Dakota State into Sunday’s bracket.
“Though three sounds more likely,” McLaughlin wrote.
Writing for TheAnalyst.com, Craig Haley also has three MVFC teams making the field. Haley projects SDSU, NDSU and North Dakota into the 24-team bracket.
The Fighting Hawks, coached by former Salukis assistant Bubba Schweigert, have won three straight games and hold a 7-3 record heading into Saturday’s game with rival NDSU.
“The thing is, 7-4 this year may not be enough to guarantee you’re in from the Valley, as in many years past,” wrote McLaughlin, who lists No. 16 North Dakota and Youngstown State as “possible” playoff teams.
Herder points out North Dakota does not own any currently-ranked wins but does have a Top 10 strength of schedule.
SIU defeated North Dakota, 34-17, in Carbondale in late September.
This week’s opponent
Youngstown State has ridden the roller coaster this season.
Head coach Doug Phillips’ Penguins have pulled out last-second road victories over Western Illinois (28-27) and Illinois State (19-17), yet were dealt a severe blow losing at Missouri State (25-22) last weekend.
“YSU needs to beat SIU to keep any playoff hopes alive,” Herder wrote.
Running back Jaleel McLaughlin has rushed for 1,504 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. The senior is fresh off a 28-carry, 227-yard performance in the loss to Missouri State in which he became the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader.
McLaughlin, who played at Division II Notre Dame (Ohio) College in 2018 and ’19, has 8,082 career yards. He broke the record of 8,074 set by Division III Mount Union’s Nate Kmic (2005-08).
(Kickoff: 11 a.m.; TV: ESPN3; Radio: CILFM.com)
Key matchup to watch
SIU rush defense vs. Jaleel McLaughlin: For much of this season, the Salukis have been solid against the run. They will need to be Saturday against McLaughlin, the conference’s leading rusher.
McLaughlin has rushed for more than 200 yards four times this fall.
What’s at stake?
The Salukis certainly don’t want to end the year losing four straight games and to finish with a sub-.500 record.
Heading into Saturday, SIU quarterback Nic Baker holds the record for the lowest single-season interception percentage (1.25) in Saluki history. Baker has thrown just four interceptions in 321 attempts this season . . . Twin brothers Avante and D’Ante’ Cox are tied for the team lead with 41 receptions each . . . Hill said recently injured running backs Justin Strong and Ro Elliott will be gametime decisions.