On Oct. 12 Southern Illinois' season appeared to be headed down a losing path. Following a 21-7 home loss to rival Illinois State, SIU's record stood at 2-4. Oh, how times have changed.
Saturday's 45-21 victory over Western Illinois marks the Salukis' fifth straight win — their longest streak in 10 years. SIU is 7-4 overall and 5-2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. WIU is 1-10 overall and 1-6 in the league.
Moreover, SIU stands a reasonable chance of being selected for the 24-team FCS playoff field when it is announced next weekend. The Salukis play No. 1-ranked North Dakota State in their regular season finale.
Here are three things we learned from SIU's win:
1. These Salukis don't like to be walked, they love to run.
SIU rushed for a season-high 388 yards in the convincing win over its rival (and the first in Macomb since 2013).
Running backs D.J. Davis and Javon Williams, Jr. combined for 356 rushing yards and five touchdown runs. Both backs ran for career-highs. Davis had 207 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries, while Williams, Jr. went for 149 yards and three touchdowns.
Receiver Avante Cox ran three times for 23, including a nine-yard touchdown off a reverse.
The Salukis averaged 6.1 yards per rush, despite losing both its starting tackles (Ernest Dye, Jr. and Beu Branyan) to injuries in the game. Redshirt freshmen Lucas Davis and Brett Groves took over those spots.
"We came out firing on all cylinders in the second half," Davis said. "We stuck with the running game when it was getting three or four yards, then we started busting big ones. We have to keep trusting the O-line."
2. Turnovers broke open the game.
A pair of controversial third quarter turnovers led to SIU pulling away for the victory.
With the Salukis leading 17-7, Western had a first-and-goal at the SIU 2. Following an incomplete pass and a 12-yard loss on a sack, WIU quarterback Connor Sampson was hit while his arm appeared to be moving forward on a third-down pass attempt. The play was originally ruled an incomplete pass, however, the ruling was changed to a sack and a fumble recovered by SIU at the 22-yard line.
After taking over possession, the Salukis increased their lead to 24-7 with six-play, 78-yard touchdown drive. Davis supplied the key play with a 53-yard rush to the WIU 14-yard line.
Western's next drive resulted in another turnover — and yet another replay look — when Sampson's fumble was recovered by SIU's Makel Calhoun and returned to WIU 16.
Three plays later, Williams Jr. scored on an eight-yard run. The extra point upped SIU's lead to 31-7.
In all, the Salukis forced five Leatherneck turnovers and recorded five sacks.
"[Football] is a momentum game, and when it's not in your favor, you have to find a way to stop it. And typically, to stop momentum, you have to generate an explosive somewhere out of a unit, offense, defense, or special teams, and we weren't able to do that. We did that in some moments, but not enough, and when we did, we weren't able to capitalize on it," WIU head coach Jared Elliott said afterward. "That's where we talked about team football, you stack on top of your units, the offensive compliments your defense and special teams, and we didn't do that consistently enough today."
3. SIU dominated time of possession.
While it's become a statistic that has been downgraded by modern analytics, Southern essentially doubled the Leathernecks in time of possession (40:58-19:02).
SIU ran 84 plays — 64 of them on the ground (76 percent). Certainly, that played a factor in wearing down Western's defense. It also opened up the passing game.
Saluki quarterback Kare Lyles completed 12-of-18 passes for 144 yards. Williams, Jr. was 2-for-2 on his passes. SIU averaged 9.6 yards per attempt and 13.7 yards per completion.
Of SIU's 14 receptions, 11 went to either Landon Lenoir (5 catches for 114 yards) or Avante Cox (6 catches for 53 yards).
Southern attempts to win its sixth straight game, hosting top-ranked and defending national champion North Dakota State at Saluki Stadium. The Bison clinched their ninth consecutive MVFC title with a 49-14 win over South Dakota Saturday. NDSU has won 32 straight games.
Western travels to nationally ranked Northern Iowa for its final game of the season. No. 4 UNI lost 38-7 at No. 8 South Dakota State Saturday.