SIU's long wait pays off as Salukis will face MVFC foe South Dakota in playoff opener

Southern Illinois and offensive lineman ZeVeyon Furcron are back in the FCS playoffs. SIU won an opening-round playoff game in the spring (above) at Weber State. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

The waiting game lasted as long as ESPNU could allow Sunday morning for the Southern Illinois football team.

The Salukis were the last playoff matchup announced on the televised playoff pairings show, ensuring SIU (7-4) made the FCS postseason for the second consecutive season. SIU also earned a playoff spot during the spring COVID season.

SIU was the 23rd team unveiled as a playoff participant in the 24-team field. The Salukis will face a familiar foe in fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference member South Dakota (7-4) at 5 p.m. Saturday on ESPN-Plus in Vermillion, S.D.

The Salukis struggled down the stretch, finishing 1-3 to end the season, including Saturday’s 35-18 home loss to three-win Youngstown State.

“It’s a rush,” SIU quarterback Nic Baker said in a video posted to the school’s website. “I knew we couldn’t go out like that, with that last game. I knew God had another plan for us.”

The two teams did not play each other this fall.

The first-round winner advances to face No. 2 seed and MVFC champion North Dakota State (10-1).

FCS playoff committee chairman Thorr Bjorn, the athletic director at Rhode Island, revealed that SIU and MVFC member Northern Iowa (6-5) were the last two teams chosen. He added that the MVFC’s rugged league schedule was a tipping point.

“We spent a lot of time on those particular areas,” Bjorn told ESPNU of the final two teams in the field and choosing the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds. “We feel good about how it all played out.”

In all, six MVFC teams were selected, while five from the Big Sky Conference made the field.

The Valley had a great, great year. It (speaks to) the strength of those particular leagues,” Bjorn said. “The way they took care of business, you just couldn’t keep any of them out.”

The last time SIU faced South Dakota was on Oct. 26, 2019, when the Salukis won a 48-28 road decision. That day, the Salukis rushed for 334 yards and got four rushing touchdowns from Javon Williams Jr.

Avante Cox scored three times for the Salukis in the game and compiled 113 receiving yards and 80 rushing yards.

“This team is for sure battle tested,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said of SIU. “There’s not really anybody they could’ve thrown up on the screen that we would’ve been scared to play. This leagues prepares you for times like these.”

Bjorn noted that UNI made the field based on three wins against teams that made the playoff field. SIU went 1-2 against playoff qualifiers, with a win against South Dakota State and losses to UNI and Missouri State.

“When you’re in the playoffs, everybody is 0-0,” SIU wide receiver Landon Lenoir said. “It doesn’t matter who’s No. 1, who’s No. 16 or who’s No. 24. We’ve got to make the most of our opportunity.”

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