With MVFC losing streak over, Salukis see road to improvement

With MVFC losing streak over, Salukis see road to improvement
Darrell James led SIU with seven catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. (photo courtesy of SIUSalukis.com)

When the Southern Illinois football team hits the road these days, it packs a more professional demeanor.

“In years past, we’ve seen guys at the hotel a little more lackadaisical,” junior wide receiver Darrell James said. “We have that mindset (now) that it’s a work trip, a business trip. Even as far as the bus ride to the stadium, guys are locking in a little more.”

For the first time since 2014, the Salukis have won at least two road games. Last weekend, SIU’s 45-24 win against Indiana State in Terre Haute, Ind., was its first Missouri Valley Football Conference victory since Nov. 8, 2014 at Missouri State.

That losing streak lasted 1,079 days, but the Salukis don’t expect another skid anytime soon. Head coach Nick Hill, a former SIU player, is making sure of that in his weekly message to players.

“We have to make our own energy,” James said. “Coach stresses that throughout the week all the time. We are our spark. We are our fans. We are our cheerleaders. We are everything for our team when we’re on the road.”

Tough road test

A week after SIU (4-3 overall, 2-2 MVFC) beat winless Indiana State, they face a much sturdier challenge. The Salukis travel to Vermillion, S.D., to face the No. 6 University of South Dakota (6-1, 3-1) on Saturday. The Coyotes boast do-everything quarterback Chris Streveler and play in the ultra-noisy Dakota Dome.

South Dakota is coming off its first loss of the season, a 37-21 decision against the same Illinois State team that SIU pounded, 42-7, two weeks ago.

“We take every game a team plays into account,” James said. “But we can’t expect them to just lay down because they lost to ISU. I guarantee they’re going to be fired up. We play in the Missouri Valley. You get the best from everybody.”

Streveler is the team’s leading rusher (477 yards, eight TDs) and passer (2,305 yards, 19 TDs) and was added this month to the watch list for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in FCS each year.

Building a bond

The Salukis have their own talented arm in junior QB Sam Straub, who leads the MVFC with 20 touchdown passes, one more than Streveler.

“This is going to be great,” James said.

Straub’s favorite target this season has been James, who has team highs of 35 receptions, 567 yards and six receiving TDs. He also has a strong bond with Straub.

“Sam’s my guy, ever since our senior year of high school when we met on our official visit (to Carbondale),” he said. “I knew he was going to be my quarterback.”

Unlike other receivers, James says he often welcomes feedback from Straub.

When Straub tells James during a game how to run a certain route, “I run it just like that,” James said.

After practice, they stay late every day to go over game scenarios and coverages. The benefits are clear.

“I know what he’s thinking, and he understands what’s going through my mind,” James said.

The game

Southern Illinois (4-3, 2-2) at South Dakota (6-1, 3-1), 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28 at Vermillion, S.D. (Game will air on ESPN3.com and www.1051vza.com.)

Three key matchups

  1. SIU O-line vs. USD D-line: The Salukis lead the nation in fewest sacks allowed with 0.43 per game. The Coyotes, meanwhile, have 25 sacks and rank fourth nationally.
  2. SIU defense vs. USD QB Chris Streveler: SIU has collected 19 takeaways this season, which is No. 6 nationally. Streveler, one of the nation’s most dynamic offensive players, has two turnovers in seven games.
  3. SIU QB Sam Straub vs. USD DB Phillip Powell: Straub leads the MVFC in touchdown passes (20), which is one more than Streveler. The Coyotes’ improved defense is being aided by Powell, a redshirt freshman from Chicago who has a team-leading three interceptions.

Key stat

SIU QB Sam Straub needs only nine touchdown passes in the season’s final five games to break the single-season school record of 28. That record was set in 2007 by current SIU head coach Nick Hill.

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