With roughly half of the college football regular season in the books, Prairie State Pigskin takes a look where the four Illinois FCS teams stand. We've reached out to those who see the teams week-in, week-out (and sometimes day-in, day-out). Here's our first report.
Southern Illinois (1-4 overall, 0-2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference)
Offense: C+. SIU is among the best in the nation at scoring and yardage. Turnovers drop this offense from A to C, in my mind as they have been very costly despite all the yards and points. 3 turnovers per game. 15 points per game allowed off turnovers.
Defense: C-. 2 poor games vs. SEMO and South Dakota are like anvils on this team. They are improved at stopping drives. Have suffered a bevy of injuries, especially at safety. Health will determine the success of SIU’s defensive season.
Special Teams: B. They cover kicks well and kick satisfactorily. Could use explosive returns.
What to look for in the second half of the season: Their internal strength on the heels of a 1-4 start as well as health will determine whether the second half of SIU’s season is better than the first.
--Mike Reis, SIU radio
Even after last week's 17-14 loss at Youngstown State with backup quarterback Matt DeSomer, SIU is still averaging 34.4 points and over 485 yards a game.
The Salukis have protected quarterback Sam Straub and DeSomer well, allowing only eight sacks all year, and been incredibly balanced. With running back D.J. Davis, the feature back with three scores and 120.4 yards a game, SIU has rushed for nine touchdowns and passed for 10. Tight end Nigel Kilby has been a nice addition to force teams to cover the middle of the field (12 catches, four touchdowns) and wideout Raphael Leonard (28 catches, 386 yards, four touchdowns) was on pace for a 1,000-yard season before the last two weeks.
SIU's offense has been one of its Achilles' heels, though, with Straub throwing eight interceptions in four starts and nine touchdowns. The fifth-year senior has made some poor decisions, which have led to easy points for the other team. Straub threw nine interceptions in eight starts last year before getting hurt, and must do a better job of protecting the football.
The numbers aren't great (36.4 points per game allowed, over 430 yards allowed per game), but SIU's defense has largely done its job through the first five games.
The front four has repeatedly put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, earning 16 sacks, and been solid in the red zone. Opponents have scored on 19 of 23 trips to the red zone, but with only 13 touchdowns (57 percent). The Salukis would have been blown out against South Dakota and Youngstown State if they didn't force some timely field goals with terrible field position, as a result of some of the offense's turnovers.
The defense has some outstanding players in safety Jeremy Chinn, defensive end Anthony Knighton (12 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) and new middle linebacker Bryce Notree (team-high 36 tackles), but will have to overcome season-ending injuries to linebacker Cody Crider and now cornerback James Ceasar.
Special Teams: D
What should be a strength for SIU has faltered in the last few weeks. Punter Lane Reazin, the first team all-conference pick last year, was fantastic against South Dakota with some well-placed kicks but opened the door to the game-winning field goal by Youngstown State with a 27-yard punt when the Salukis could least afford it.
Normally sure-handed D.J. Davis, who SIU must get out of the punt return game, fumbled one away the Penguins turned into points. Davis has one 31-yard kickoff return (a few more were nullified by penalties) and his longest punt return has been one yard. The Salukis need something more than somebody who can catch the punt, and must be more aggressive.
Kicker Nico Gualdoni, in his first full season of starting, has been great, nailing 6 of 7 field goal attempts and kicking off to where SIU wanted the ball. His longest field goal was 39 yards against Southeast Missouri State, but the Salukis don't need someone who can make a 50-yarder. They need someone who they can rely on inside the 40, and Gualdoni has filled the bill.
What to look for in the second half of the season: SIU is at a crossroads this week at No. 12 Illinois State. Probably out of the conference championship race and the playoff race (it would have to go 6-0 to end the season 7-4, which isn't happening), the Salukis now have to fight through some real adversity.
The injuries are piling up - there is a chance they could start backups at quarterback, center, left tackle, tight end and cornerback - and the starting quarterback that is close to ending his career in the top 10 of every major category can't stop turning the ball over.
Against the toughest part of their schedule - the Salukis have three games against top-15 opponents beginning this weekend, and two more against teams that have been ranked in Missouri State and Western Illinois - they will either stem the tide or plummet to a 1-10 record. A winning record would be a great catapult into next year. A 1-10 finish, with a 10-game losing streak, would be disastrous to the progress of the program.
--Todd Hefferman, Southern Illinoisan beat writer