Five burning questions for 2023: Southern Illinois Salukis edition

SIU quarterback Nic Baker threw for 2,750 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. The Salukis will lose five of their top seven receivers this off-season. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Southern Illinois was a team of streaks this season.

A two-game losing streak to start the season damaged the good vibes of a top 10 preseason FCS ranking.

Five consecutive wins – including a victory at FBS Northwestern and against playoff bound North Dakota – shined a bright spotlight on SIU’s own postseason hopes.

Then four losses in a row by a combined 14 points to end the season dimmed all hopes of a third playoff trip in as many seasons and left the Salukis with a 5-6 record. Five of the six SIU losses were by seven points or less.

“As a head coach, when you lose a lot of one-score games, you gotta look at yourself first,” Hill said after the Salukis surrendered a three-touchdown lead in a 28-21 season finale loss at Youngstown State. “We haven’t been able to play four quarters of complementary football.”

Prairie State Pigskin examines five key questions the Salukis are facing this offseason.

What will the receiving corps look like next season?

Quarterback Nic Baker not only loses his superb high school teammates, twin brothers Avante and D’Ante Cox, but the Salukis will be without five of their top seven receivers who went through Senior Day ceremonies in November.

The departing quintet accounted for 171 receptions, 2,222 receiving yards and 20 of SIU’s 21 touchdowns through the air. That’s 67% of the team’s total catches, 76% of the receiving yards and 95% of the TDs.

Not all is lost, however. Two intriguing wide receivers to watch in spring ball will be speedy sophomore Izaiah Hartrup, who lost the entire season to a hamstring injury, and 6-4 target Zach Gibson, who caught only four passes in eight games. By season’s end this fall, redshirt freshmen Dayton Mitchell (five catches, one TD) and Jay Jones (two catches, 30-yard average) were on the two-deep roster. Expect SIU to find a contributor or two in the transfer portal as well.

Does SIU have some building blocks for an improved defense?

In their five wins, the Salukis allowed 16.6 points. However, opponents scored 35.2 points in SIU’s six losses.

There were plenty of high notes on defense this fall.

Defensive end Richie Hagarty’s 6.5 sacks – the most by an SIU player since 2019 – helped the Salukis finish second in the league with 34 sacks.

In his first season after moving from cornerback to free safety, P.J. Jules led the team with 66 tackles and seven pass breakups. Linebacker Branson Combs ranked second with 57 tackles to go with 5.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions.

The Salukis, with a deep defensive front, allowed only 105.4 yards rushing per game, which was an improvement of nearly 75 yards a game compared to 2021.

Pass defense was the unit’s sore spot. SIU allowed 24 passing TDs – tied for most in the MVFC – and the second-most pass yards per game (238.1). In losses to Incarnate Word, Southeast Missouri and Northern Iowa, the Salukis gave up a combined 15 passing touchdowns and 1,113 yards.

Will the Salukis be able to consistently rev up their offense?

Slow starts and slow finishes were a hallmark this season for SIU. They scored 65 first-quarter points and 63 fourth-quarter points in 11 games. They were held scoreless five times in the first quarter and four times in the fourth quarter.

“It’s kind of been our Achilles heel all year,” Hill said in Youngstown. “We were close at times, but just to have that pure explosiveness to put teams away and put the scores into the high 30s and 40s, that just hasn’t been who we are.”

SIU was 39-for-43 in red zone scoring opportunities, but only 29-for-43 in scoring red zone TDs.

How important is a good start to the 2023 season?

Getting some early season momentum is going to have to come on the road.

After a season-opening home game against Austin Peay (7-4) on Sept. 2, Southern travels to FBS Northern Illinois (3-9) then to Cape Girardeau, Mo., for the annual War for the Wheel game against FCS playoff participant Southeast Missouri (9-3).

A 2-1 record in the non-conference schedule could go a long way to reaching seven victories and earning playoff consideration. Over the next two seasons, the revamped MVFC schedule with newcomer Murray State included features the Salukis missing in-state rival Illinois State, along with Northern Iowa and North Dakota. All three of those teams had winning records in 2022.

Can the Salukis rectify their kicking woes?

Primary kicker Jake Baumgarte was 11-for-17 on the season and had one kick blocked, while backup Thomas Burks was 1-for-2. When playing so many one-score games, a field goal here or there could mean the difference between making or missing the playoffs.

SIU’s 63.2% field goal accuracy was the third-lowest in the 11-team MVFC.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: