Fifteen months ago, the Southern Illinois football team was riding the high of five wins in six games to finish the 2019 season.
Then, the Salukis experienced the emotional letdown of not being chosen for the FCS playoffs despite a 7-5 record and five wins in the rugged Missouri Valley Football Conference.
As SIU kicks off the 2021 spring season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the playoffs look different, with only 16 teams guaranteed spots rather than the usual 24.
None of that matters to SIU’s players, however, who are determined not to get left out this time around. They will kick off the spring season Saturday, Feb. 20 at North Dakota in a noon game on ESPN+.
“We’ve got to show them why we need to be in the playoffs,” junior wide receiver Avante Cox said. “We have to prove there’s no doubt we should be in the playoffs. We can’t leave it in anybody’s hands.”
Cox and his teammates want to reward SIU’s seniors, who enjoyed their first winning season in 2019 and endured a 2-9 record in 2018.
“It’s really important,” Cox said of the playoffs. “I want to get there for (the seniors), seeing what they’ve been through.”
The fact that there are only six at-large spots this spring for non-conference champions isn’t a worry to the Salukis.
“It doesn’t concern us at all,” Cox said. “We’re even more excited about it now.”
SIU senior defensive end Anthony Knighton, who has started every game in his career (35) is only three sacks away from setting the career school record.
Knighton has 21 career sacks and is trailing school record holder James Phillips (1977-80), who had 23.5 during his time in Carbondale.
Knighton is also fifth all-time for SIU in tackles for loss (36.5). The school record is 48, set by Bryan Archibald from 1998 to 2001.
New face in MVFC
Today’s game at North Dakota is the second all-time meeting between SIU and the Fighting Hawks.
This also marks the first game for North Dakota as a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
Senior Qua Brown, who was in the transfer portal before returning to SIU for the spring season, will start today at free safety for the Salukis.
He takes over for Colorado transfer Aaron Maddox, who started against Southeast Missouri in SIU’s lone fall game and had an interception.
Ranked and ready
The Salukis enter the spring season ranked 13th nationally by Athlon Sports, up six spots from their previous ranking.
SIU moved up on the strength of its 20-17 victory against regional rival Southeast Missouri in October.
“I’m excited for everyone that’s involved in the program – mainly the players,” SIU head coach Nick Hill told the media this week about the opener of the eight-game, MVFC-only schedule. “I’m excited we are here.”
About North Dakota
The Fighting Hawks will start redshirt freshman Tommy Schuster at QB. His backup is true freshman Quincy Vaughn.
All five starting offensive linemen started at least eight games each last season.
The team has loads of experience on its 3-4 defensive alignment. Nine of the 11 starters today are juniors or seniors. The defense ranked in the top 40 nationally against the pass in 2019.
Where you can watch
The game will air on ESPN+ online with a noon kickoff from Grand Forks, N.D. The SIU radio call is available at CILFM.com.