Salukis in must-win mode following one-sided defeat

Justin Strong (5) and Southern Illinois need to re-establish the running game that has led to Saluki success this season. (photo courtesy siusalukis.com)

Quarterbacks are almost always at the forefront of college football talk. Saturday’s key Missouri Valley Conference game between 10th-ranked Southern Illinois and Missouri State will be no different.

SIU head coach Nick Hill announced earlier this week that junior Stone Labonowitz will start at quarterback but that senior Kare’ Lyles may also see action.

“Both will be available to play,” Hill said during his weekly media address.

Lyles was the starter in the season opener but has been sidelined by injury. Labonowitz took over when Lyles’ replacement Nic Baker was hurt and required season-ending surgery.

“He (Baker) got pretty good news. He had a Lisfranc injury. Sometimes those are six months of recovery. It’s going to be an 8-week recovery, (he) had a screw put in is left foot. It will be a pretty quick recovery compared to what the alternative could have been,” Hill explained.

Stone Labanowitz

Labonowitz, a 5-foot-10, 195-pounder from Stuart, Fla., started the first three games —  including a win at FBS UMass — in 2019.

Meanwhile, first-year Missouri State football head coach Bobby Petrino declined to name his starter.

“We’ll go out and practice and see what happens. Make them prepare for both guys,” Petrino said referring to either redshirt freshman Jaden Johnson or transfer Matt Struck.

Struck made his first start for the Bears in last week’s win over previously 10th-ranked Northern Iowa. The senior completed 19-of-25 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown.

Struck joined Missouri State in January after he started 11-of-12 games as a junior for Idaho State, completing 164-of-320 (.512) passes for 2,334 yards with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2019.

Johnson, who transferred to Missouri State from Southern Mississippi, completed 56 percent of his passes between the seven combined fall and spring games the Bears have played. However, Johnson has thrown six interceptions and only one touchdown.

Changing seasons

Both teams played in the fall. While SIU won its lone autumn game —  against rival SEMO — Missouri State lost all three of its games (FBS Oklahoma and twice to FCS Central Arkansas).

However, the Bears have posted a 3-1 spring MVFC record. Moreover, Missouri State has defeated then-ranked opponents South Dakota and Northern Iowa.

SIU is 3-2 this spring. After rising to a No. 5 national ranking, the Salukis slipped back to 10th following a 44-3 drubbing to South Dakota State in Carbondale.

If SIU desires to keep its postseason hopes, the Salukis are in a must-win situation. The spring FCS playoff bracket holds only 16 slots rather than the usual 24.

Family ties

According his SIU biography, Saluki defensive coordinator Jason Petrino and his brother Jared Petrino (Saluki special teams/defensive ends coach) are cousins to Missouri State head coach Bobby Petrino and Idaho coach Paul Petrino.

“It’s about going and executing,” Hill said. “These players aren’t thinking about what their coach’s last name is. Once you kick off, no one’s going to be thinking about it. I know it’s fun for their families. I know for Jason and Jared and their parents, it’s kind of like when brothers play. It’s a cool thing for their family to get to play and for their relatives and friends to watch.”

Bobby Petrino said, “We’ve just got to go beat them. That’s what it comes down to. I’ve got two nephews on their staff. My dad’s brothers were twins — Mike and Pat Petrino — and these are Mike’s sons. They obviously spent a lot of time around us.

“We babysat Jared a bunch when he was growing up. In fact, one day, my dad fell asleep on the couch with my little brother and they were supposed to be babysitting Jared at the time. He ended up in the fireplace, with coal all over him. My mom wasn’t real happy about that.”

Saluki news & notes

In its loss to South Dakota State, SIU turned the ball over four times and was held to a season-low 213 yards of total offense . . . Opponents have scored 67 points off Saluki turnovers; SIU has tallied 21 points off foes’ miscues . . . After grabbing two interceptions in the October win over SEMO, the Salukis have just one pick in the spring . . . Southern is allowing 5.4 yards per rush this spring . . . The Salukis are converting 53 percent of third downs (44-of-83) while holding opponents to 39 percent (27-of-70) . . . Junior receiver Avante Cox leads the team with 40 catches for 472 yards and two touchdowns.

Where to find the game

SIU (4-2, 3-2) will kick off at 2 p.m. against Missouri State (3-4, 3-1) in Springfield, Mo. on ESPN+ online. The radio broadcast is available at CILFM.com

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