3 things we learned: Powerful ground game helps Valley newcomer turn tables on SIU

3 things we learned: Powerful ground game helps Valley newcomer turn tables on SIU
Landon Lenoir hauls in one of his six catches Saturday in a 44-21 SIU loss to North Dakota. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

Grinding teams down with a powerful ground game has been an important trait for the Southern Illinois football team.

On Saturday, in the opener of its spring season, the Salukis saw how effective another team was at following that same path.

North Dakota, in its first game as a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, rushed for 229 yards and created five turnovers to hand the Salukis a 44-21 loss in Grand Forks, N.D.

“Obviously, I’m extremely disappointed with the outcome,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said. “We got our butts beat and we didn’t expect that.”

Using an experienced offensive line and a rotation of five different rushers, North Dakota averaged 5.9 yards per carry and expanded a 16-14 halftime lead by scoring on its first three second-half possessions.

The loss dropped SIU, which played one fall game, to 1-1 while North Dakota won its home opener for the 34th consecutive season.

Three things we learned:

  1. Turnovers take their toll.

SIU’s offensive momentum was consistently interrupted thanks to three lost fumbles and two interceptions. “That’s just bad football,” Hill said.

Perhaps the most damaging turnover was a second-quarter UND sack of Salukis quarterback Kare’ Lyles. On the play, Lyles fumbled the ball, which was returned for a touchdown. The SIU quarterback stayed on the field with trainers for several minutes after the blindside hit and did not return to the game.

The Salukis turned the ball over three times in the game inside their own 40-yard line.

  1. Run game takes a back seat.

SIU, which had rushed for at least 200 yards in six consecutive games dating back to 2019, managed only 90 yards on the ground.

Sophomore running back Javon Williams Jr., who finished third in voting for the Jerry Rice Award last season as the top freshman in FCS, lost a first-half fumble and managed only 29 yards and 2.2 yards per carry.

Hill said Williams recently had ankle surgery to remove bone spurs, which could have been part of the reason behind his slow start.

Meanwhile, North Dakota overwhelmed SIU’s defense with 186 second-half yards on the ground. “Once we got into the second half, we physically were not ready to play a full football game,” Hill said.

  1. Injury leaves QB spot uncertain.

Who starts next weekend against defending national champion North Dakota State in Carbondale? That question isn’t one Hill could answer just yet. He said Lyles, who left the game after the second-quarter sack, was cleared to return to the game “but he was having some trouble breathing.”

Lyles finished 12-for-14 passing for 74 yards. Backup Nic Baker, who threw two interceptions, led a pair of scoring drives and had 153 yards on 12-for-23 passing on the day.

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