Saturday showdown: Salukis host Southeast Louisiana in playoff audition

Eighteenth-ranked Southern Illinois hosts No. 17 Southeastern Louisiana at noon Saturday in Carbondale. (photo courtesty siusalukis.com)

Whether Saturday’s nonconference matchup with nationally ranked Southeastern Louisiana provides a bridge to the FCS playoffs, Southern Illinois is treating it as such.

“(I’m) excited for this game. A lot has happened in the last two weeks of the season with not having a game, (and then) being able to find a game with Southeastern Louisiana,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said at his media address earlier this week.

After a last-second defeat at Missouri State March 27, Southern Illinois lost two potential victories when in-state rivals Illinois State and Western Illinois each opted out of the remainder of the spring season.

SIU athletic director Liz Jarnigan was then able to secure Saturday’s game at Saluki Stadium with Southeastern Louisiana, a member of the Southland Conference.

Thus, the 18th-ranked Salukis (4-3) will host the 17th-rated Lions (4-2) for a noon kickoff.

This game bookends a season that saw SIU play one fall game — a last-second victory over regional rival Southeast Missouri State of the Ohio Valley Conference. In between, the Salukis posted a 3-3 record in the spring Missouri Valley Football Conference season.

Saturday marks the final opportunity for both SIU and Southeastern Louisiana to get a win against a quality opponent and potentially catch the FCS playoff committee’s eye.

While the NCAA will announce the 16-team postseason bracket Sunday, that possibility faces long odds with only six at-large bids up for grabs with plenty of qualified candidates under consideration.

Scouting Southeastern Louisiana

The Lions will make the eight-hour bus trip to Carbondale from Hammond, Louisiana to face SIU.

Southeastern Louisiana finished second in the Southland, where undefeated and No. 5 Sam Houston State (5-0) wore the conference crown. Like SIU, the Lions are striving for a win over the Top 20 team and a glimmer of hope for the playoffs.

The Lions are led by quarterback Cole Kelley, who leads the FCS in passing yards (2,244). The 6-foot-7, 260-pound senior has 16 touchdown passes in six games to rank fifth-best in the nation.

The Saluki defense will be on high alert as Southeastern Louisiana has scored more than 40 points in three straight games. The Lions rank ninth in the country in offense (38.2 points per game).

However, Southeastern Louisiana ranks 82nd in scoring defense, allowing 33.3 points per game.

“Some of the games that they’ve been in have almost been like Arena-type games,” said Hill, a former Arena football quarterback himself.

The Lions are coming off a 52-45 win over Nicholls. Saturday’s game at SIU marks the fourth time in as many road contests in 2020-21 for Southeastern Louisiana against a ranked opponent.

Saluki news & notes

The last time SIU made the playoffs was 2010 . . . Saturday’s game will be the fifth time the Salukis have played a ranked opponent this 2020-21 season . . . Foes have scored 67 points off Southern turnovers while the Salukis have 28 off opponents’ miscues . . . due to injuries, SIU has started three different quarterbacks — Kare Lyles, Nic Baker and Stone Labanowitz — this spring . . . Avante Cox leads the team with 47 receptions for 533 yards and three touchdowns. The junior is also SIU’s third-leading rusher with 164 yards . . . kicker Nico Gualdoni has hit 7-of-8 field goal attempts . . . Jack Colquhoun has averaged 44 yards per punt and put 10 balls inside the 20-yard line . . . Bryson Strong in the top tackler with 49 stops, 34 of which are solo.

Where to find the game

Saturday’s 12 p.m. game will be televised on ESPN+ and can be heard on the Saluki Radio Network.

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