3 things we learned: Run game gives legs to SIU's FCS playoff chances

SIU running back Justin Strong shrugs off a defender on his way to a career-high 169 rushing yards in the Salukis’ 55-48 victory Saturday. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

While trying to make one final impression on the FCS playoff committee, Southern Illinois fought fire with fire against high-scoring Southeastern Louisiana in Carbondale on Saturday.

The Salukis – ranked 18th in this week’s STATS Perform national poll — racked up a school-record 807 yards of total offense, including 423 on the ground, to outlast the No. 17 Lions by a 55-48 score.

After being narrowly left out of the playoffs in 2019, SIU hopes that its playoff fortunes are different this time around when the field is announced Sunday morning. The Salukis (5-3) have beaten four ranked teams during this unique pandemic season, including then-No. 1 North Dakota State in February.

“In our eyes, we feel like we can beat anybody in the country,” SIU running back Justin Strong said. “We knew that if they were going to keep on scoring, we’ve got to keep on scoring, no matter what. We kept going shot for shot with them.”

SIU’s lead never got bigger than eight points in the first half as Lions quarterback Cole Kelley threw for 418 yards and two touchdowns while running for three scores in the game.

For each of Southeastern Louisiana’s four first-half scores, SIU responded with a touchdown of its own.  

A 22-yard run by SIU’s Jack Colquhoun on a fake punt late in the second quarter led to a 34-27 halftime lead for the Salukis. After receiving the second-half kickoff, SIU scored on a two-play, 25-second drive to go up two scores.

After helping the Lions rally to tie the game at 41, Kelley fumbled on a sack by SIU’s Anthony Knighton early in the fourth quarter that led to one of Strong’s two rushing TDs.

SIU head coach Nick Hill said he plans to attend church Sunday, as he usually does, and will not watch the playoff announcement.

“A committee doesn’t have to tell me that we’re one of the top 16 teams in the country,” he said. “Last year, I was told we didn’t have enough ranked wins. Now we have four. I’m going to go to church and somebody will tell me whether we’re in or we’re out.”

Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned from SIU’s victory:

  1. Ground and pound

The Salukis controlled the game on the ground as Strong had a career-high 159 yards, while Javon Williams Jr. added 145 yards, which was his biggest output of the spring season. Hill said those were the only two running backs the team dressed. “There was no coming out,” he said. “Our two bigger backs had to just come to play.”

Using their size up front, the Salukis wore down the visitors with 23 first downs on the ground and 51 rushing attempts.

“We just knew that we could outpower them,” Strong said. “We knew we had size on them.”

SIU quarterback Stone Labanowitz said he often became an admirer of his offensive line after handing the ball off.

“I would hand the ball off and kind of sit back and watch our offensive line go to work,” he said. “I’d see (guard) ZeVeyon Furcron smack somebody in the face, or see (tackle) Lucas Davis put a kid completely on the ground. The big guys led the way the entire day.”

2. Special plays at special times

Despite playing in a game with 103 points, SIU’s defense came through with three sacks while forcing a punt and a turnover on two of five Southeastern Louisiana drives in the second half.

“I’ve been asked before, ‘What’s winning defense?’” Hill said. “Well, it’s making stops when you have to make stops, helping your team win a football game.”

Senior defensive back James Ceasar led the Salukis with 11 tackles, while also collecting a sack and two pass breakups.

SIU’s punter also provided a game-changing special teams play.

Colquhoun’s run up the middle of the field on fourth-and-5 from SIU’s 30-yard line in the second half pushed the ball over midfield and led to the tying score.

3. Standing tall at QB

Stone Labanowitz completed 20 of 24 passes Saturday against Southeastern Louisiana. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

Though the 6-foot-7 Kelley is considered one of the top quarterbacks in FCS, the 5-10 Labanowitz stood tall in the victory, completing 20 of 24 passes for 328 yards.

“It was just trusting our guys,” Labanowitz said. “They didn’t get tricky defensively. We saw a lot of man coverage, and I always lick my chops with the guys we’ve got (against man-to-man).”

Senior Landon Lenoir caught seven passes for 128 yards, while junior wide receiver Avante’ Cox caught eight balls for 127 yards.

“We executed beautifully,” Labanowitz said. “Man coverage is not a good idea vs. Avante’ Cox and not a good idea vs. Landon Lenoir.” Both receivers caught a TD pass from Labanowitz, while fullback Jacob Garrett, playing with two broken hands, according to Hill, caught a scoring pass from Williams.

Labanowitz is the third quarterback SIU has started this season after injuries to Kare’ Lyles and Nic Baker.

“We know we have a quarterback who can put up a lot of points,” Strong said.

What’s up next?

It’s time to wait and wonder. SIU will await word on Sunday’s 10:30 a.m. reveal of the FCS playoff field on ESPNU.

If the Salukis are not chosen, they will have to wait until Sept. 2 to take the field at Southeast Missouri in the annual rivalry game.

Leave a comment