3 key matchups for SIU's return to the playoffs

Southern Illinois University posted this graphic after finding out the Salukis made the 16-team FCS playoff field SIU last made the playoffs in 2009. (graphic courtesy siusalukis.com)

Following Southern Illinois’ exhilarating celebration Sunday morning when the Salukis were named part of the 16-team FCS playoff bracket, the SIU coaching staff set sights on the opponent — No. 3 Weber State.

“We’re battle tested,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said during a Sunday media address. “Weber will create new problems and they’re a team we haven’t prepared for and don’t really know.

“We kind of had that experience (for Saturday’s 55-48 win over Southeastern Louisiana). That was a playoff game that we just played on Saturday. Our players knew we had zero chance unless we won and fought. I think when you put on the film, those guys just battled yesterday. We’re just going to take it as another week like that (previous week).”

No doubt Hill and his staff will create a game plan for their 17h-ranked Salukis (5-3) against Weber State (5-0) from the Big Sky Conference. The two teams kick off at 3 p.m. Saturday in Ogden, Utah. The victor will advance to play the winner of Holy Cross versus top-seed South Dakota State.

Here are three key matchups to watch Saturday:

  1. SIU run game vs. Weber State run defense

The Salukis rolled up 423 rushing yards en route to a school-record 807 total yards in Saturday’s shootout with Southeastern Louisiana. Javon Willams Jr. enjoyed his finest day of the spring season with a combined 201 rushing and passing yards and three touchdowns. For his efforts, Williams was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Offensive Player of the Week. In addition, Justin Strong ran for a career-high 159 yards. Meanwhile, Weber State has given up just three rushing touchdowns in its five spring games. The Wildcats yield 3.8 yards per rushing attempt.

2. SIU defense vs. Weber State balanced offense

The Big Sky Conference has long been known as a passing league. However, this spring’s Weber State offense calls running plays 62 percent of the time. Junior Josh Davis, a two-time All-Big Sky first team selection and the 2018 Jerry Rice Award winner as the National Freshman of the Year, has topped the 100-yard mark twice this season. Quarterback Bronson Barron has completed 55 percent of his passes and averages nearly 212 yards per game. Moreover, the freshman has yet to throw an interception in 101 attempts. SIU’s defense has struggled at times, but head coach Nick Hill said after Saturday’s win, “I’ve been asked before, ‘What’s winning defense? Well, it’s making stops when you have to make stops, helping your team win a football game.” If the Salukis are to win against Weber State, the defense will need to make those stops again.

3. The right mindset

After sweating out Sunday’s playoff selection show, SIU can’t just settle for being happy to make the postseason bracket. “We’re not scared to play anybody, anywhere. We’ve proven that. Just getting into the playoffs isn’t what we really want to do,” Hill said Sunday. “There are only 16 teams left and anything can happen – you’ve got to take it one game at a time. I’m happy for all the families, their friends and the players. They’ll get the rest of the day off as the coaches dive into a game plan. I think our mind quickly shifts from being excited to be in to how we can go out and get this win.”

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