3 key matchups for SIU's rematch with South Dakota State

In a 44-3 loss last month in Carbondale to South Dakota State, Southern Illinois gave up 392 rushing yards. The two teams face off against Sunday, May 2 in the FCS playoffs. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

In their first meeting with South Dakota State – on March 20 in Carbondale – little went right for the SIU Salukis.

“Look, they beat us 44-3,” Southern head coach Nick Hill said. “There’s not much more to say about that. There’s no excuses. Until we go out and do something differently about it, you are what the score says you are.”

On Sunday, May 2, the Salukis (6-3) get a second chance against the Jackrabbits (6-1), the No. 1 seed in the FCS playoffs. (8 p.m. on ESPN2)

This time, a trip to the FCS semifinals is on the line for the winner of the nationally televised game. “We’ve got to go out and earn their respect,” Hill said.

Here are three key matchups to watch during Sunday’s game:

  1. SDSU run game vs. SIU defense

If the Salukis can’t find an answer for the Jackrabbits’ potent ground game, which piled up 392 yards in the first meeting, their playoff stay will be over quickly. Junior Pierre Strong Jr., who did not face the Salukis in March because of injury, was a second-team All-American in 2019 and has the third-best rushing average (88.2 yards per game) in the conference this spring. Freshman Isaiah Davis, a member of the MVFC All-Newcomer Team, is fifth in the league in both rushing yards per game (75.4) and touchdowns (six). He rushed for 150 yards and three TDs against the Salukis in March.

“If you’re out of a gap or misaligned, these backs are going to crush you,” Hill said. “Pierre’s going to make you miss. He’s just a smooth back. The freshman that hurt us last time is a downhill back, but he’s got enough speed to hit the home run, too. They create some challenges.”

In addition, when SDSU gets into the red zone, they rarely leave without points. They are 23-for-24 in red zone offense for a .958 scoring percentage, including 15 touchdowns.

2. SIU WR Avante Cox vs. SDSU secondary

Thanks to his speed, Cox has elite playmaking ability. With his 120-yard receiving game at Weber State, Cox became the fourth receiver in SIU history to have four 100-yard games in a single season. He will need to break loose against SDSU to pump up the Saluki offense.

In March against SDSU, he had seven catches, but managed only 50 yards. SDSU’s secondary limited the Salukis to only 3.7 yards per catch in the game.

3. SIU vs. Turnovers

Trailing 14-3 last month at Saluki Stadium, Southern stubbed its toe on four consecutive drives beginning late in the second quarter, resulting in three interceptions and a turnover on downs. “In about 8 minutes, the game was completely out of hand,” Hill said.

For SIU to make its way into the semifinals, they will have to play unlike their minus-8 turnover margin.

“The last time we played them it was undisciplined,” Hill said. “We turned it over. They capitalized on them.”

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