Southern Illinois running game thrives with an all-hands-on-deck approach

Justin Strong has started every game at running back for SIU this fall. He’s part of a group of four running backs that are powering the Salukis. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

When it comes to running the football this fall, it isn’t just a one-man job for Southern Illinois, the nation’s No. 3 ranked team.

The Salukis (6-1 overall, 4-0 Missouri Valley Football Conference) have relied on four backs to get the job done.

“We’ve really spread it around,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said in his weekly press conference. “They all deserve to touch the ball.”

SIU, which is tied for first place with unbeaten North Dakota State in the league standings, is averaging more than 166 yards a game on the ground. They’ve achieved that by relying on a deep group of backs.

They likely will use a combination of four backs Saturday in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where the Salukis face 16th-ranked Northern Iowa (4-3, 2-2).

Sixth-year senior Donnavan Spencer, a transfer from Western Carolina, has been the hot hand of late. After missing the first two games because of injury, Spencer has scored at least one touchdown in four games in a row.

He rushed for 103 yards and two TDs in an overtime victory at South Dakota State.

Spencer, who rushed for more than 2,000 career yards at Western Carolina, has showed off the ability to make game-changing plays. He ran for a 63-yard TD in the fourth quarter at SDSU and followed that with a 10-yard score in overtime.

The powerful duo of 215-pound Justin Strong and 245-pound Javon Williams Jr. are each averaging 5.4 yards per carry have been reliable options in the running attack.

Strong, a sophomore, has started every game and is contributing 41.9 yards a game on the ground while having at least one reception in six of SIU’s seven games. Williams, a fellow sophomore, has continued his jack-of-all-trades role as a runner/receiver/wildcat quarterback/kick returner.

Javon Williams Jr.

The bulldozing Williams Jr. has a team-leading six rushing touchdowns, is averaging 41.7 yards rushing and caught seven passes against South Dakota State.

Thanks to Williams and others, the Salukis have piled up 15 rushing touchdowns, the eighth-highest total in the nation.

Hill said elusive 5-foot-6 Romeir Elliott, who has missed most of the season with injuries, has had his best two weeks of the season this month. Elliott started seven games in the spring.

In the team’s most recent win against North Dakota, he rushed for a season-high 40 yards.

With four games left in the regular season, Hill expects to give touches to all four backs.

“We’re going to have to use them all,” he said. “I think it will pay off down the stretch as far as the health of our backs.”

Strong remains sidelined

Bryson Strong

Junior linebacker Bryson Strong, an emotional leader for the team during the spring season’s run to the playoffs, remains sidelined after off-season hand and shoulder surgeries. He was expected to return this month, but Hill said during his weekly press conference that the injuries have caused some post-football concerns.

“He saw some doctors during the bye week,” Hill said, calling the situation “wait and see. It’s kind of a tricky situation. We’re just thinking about life after football as well. We want to do what’s exactly right for Bryson Strong as a person.”

For now, Strong is an impactful presence on the Saluki sidelines.

“Heck, he’s like a coach out there,” Hill said.

During the spring FCS season, Strong led the team with 72 tackles and had two forced fumbles, two sacks and four tackles for loss.

News and notes

Avante Cox

Dynamic SIU wide receiver Avante Cox will return to the lineup Saturday, according to Hill. Cox injured his shoulder in the first half Oct. 2 at Western Illinois and missed the South Dakota State and North Dakota wins. For the season, Cox has 17 receptions and two touchdowns while averaging 73 yards a game. His is also averaging nearly 22 yards per reception. … UNI’s historically stingy defense is allowing 18.1 points a game this season and just over 103 yards rushing a game to opponents. The most challenging matchup, according to Hill, will be trying to block senior defensive tackle Jared Brinkman, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound force. “Brinkman is just like a tree in there,” he said. “It’s hard to move him around. I’ve got tons of respect for him. He’s the anchor in there.” Brinkman was named to two preseason All-America teams and is on the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List. The Buchanan Award is given annually to the best defensive player in FCS. … SIU teams are 4-14 when playing in Cedar Falls, and the last Saluki win at the UNI Dome was a 24-17 overtime triumph in 2013. … Senior SIU defensive end Anthony Knighton remains one sack away from becoming the school’s all-time leader in that category. This season, he has recorded a half of a sack in two games — against Southeast Missouri and Kansas State.

Where to find the game

The Southern Illinois game at Northern Iowa can be seen at 4 p.m. on ESPN-Plus. The SIU radio call is available online at CILFM.com. https://www.cilfm.com/

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