SIU strives to be king of the Hills in playoff tilt at unbeaten Weber State

The key to SIU’s upset bid in the first round of the FCS playoffs may well rest with the Saluki defense. (photo courtesy siusalukis.com)

Following a 12-year absence, Southern Illinois fought and scrapped its way into the FCS playoffs. If the Salukis are to survive and advance, head coach Nick Hill knows a similar effort is required on the road against No. 3 Weber State.

“My heart and soul is here,” said Hill, who quarterbacked SIU in the playoffs nearly a decade and a half ago. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at without this program. I feel a sense of pride of representing the alumni in the right way. I give it everything I have. I’ve showed up to work. We’ve done it the right way and given this program everything we have each and every day.  We strive for opportunities like this to get us back here. It was a good feeling to know that we’re making our way to where we want to get this program.”

Hill would love to get his Salukis (5-3) past Weber State (5-0) and into the second round for a potential rematch with Missouri Valley Football Conference foe South Dakota State, the bracket’s top seed and host to Holy Cross Saturday. SDSU throttled the Salukis 44-3 March 20 in Carbondale.

But, first things first. Many were surprised that unbeaten Weber State wasn’t named one of the four seeds for the 16-team FCS playoff bracket.

A challenging Hill located in the mountains

Weber State is located in Ogden, Utah. The mountains that give Ogden’s incredible backdrop are a chain of peaks that rise to more than 8,000 feet of elevation.

Stewart Stadium in Ogden, Utah, is home to Weber State football. (Photo by WeberStateSports.com)

Yet, it’s another Hill that SIU must conquer. Weber State head coach Jay Hill — no relation to SIU’s Nick — led his Wildcats to a fifth straight Big Sky Conference championship. Moreover, Jay Hill earned Region 5 Coach of the Year honors for the second season in a row.

Linebacker Conner Mortensen was tabbed the Big Sky defensive player of the year and running back Dontae McMillan was co-freshman of the year. In all, 13 Weber State players grabbed all-conference honors, including eight who were named first teamers.

Weber State is making its fifth straight appearance in the FCS playoffs. The Wildcats were ranked second in the nation in the AFCA Coaches poll for much of the season, the highest ranking in school history. 

Sizing up Southern

Weber State’s Jay Hill compares SIU to a former Big Sky member now playing in Missouri Valley — and the playoffs.

“They remind me a lot of North Dakota when they were in our league. Very tough, physical, want to run the ball, play good defense,” Hill said at his weekly media address. “UC Davis plays a lot the same way. They’re very creative in their run game.”

Mortensen, Weber State’s leading tackler, added, “(SIU is) big, physical, and it takes usually — on film — multiple guys to bring them down. We know that we’re going to have to be good tacklers, wrap them up, swarm them. They run hard. It’s going to be fun. It’s a good matchup. They’re ballers. It’s going to be exciting to play against them.”

News & notes

For the second straight season, Southern Illinois had eight players named to the all-conference team. The Salukis had four first-team selections — offensive lineman ZeVevon Furcron, wide receiver Avante Cox along with defensive backs Qua Brown and James Ceasar . . . SIU’s last playoff appearance came in 2009 when the Salukis defeated Eastern Illinois in the opening round before falling to William & Mary . . . Southern has made nine playoff appearances, including winning the 1983 national championship. The Salukis made seven-straight playoff appearances from 2003-09, advancing as far as the semifinals in 2007, when Hill was the team’s starting quarterback . . . Saturday’s QB1 Stone Labanowitz began the spring as the team’s third-stringer. Injuries to Kare Lyles and Nic Baker thrust the Florida native into the starting lineup. However, Labanowitz was no stranger to the position; he was the starter in 2019 . . . The last time Weber State faced a team from Illinois came in the 2017 playoffs when the Wildcats rallied past Western Illinois 21-19 . . . After a blowout win in its season opener against Idaho State, Weber State has won a string of closely contested games. The Wildcats’ average margin of victory in those wins was 4.5 points. “We had three games like that. We allowed them to be a little closer than they were,” Jay Hill said calling those game “self-inflicted nailbiters”. . . Saturday’s expected kickoff temperature is 67 degrees with no precipitation under cloudy skies.

Three key matchups

  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.”

Where to find the game

Saturday’s 3 p.m. game will be televised on ESPN3 and can be heard on the Saluki Radio Network.

Barry Bottino contributed to this story.

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