Third-down success among three keys to Southern Illinois postseason opener

Quarterback Nic Baker and the Southern Illinois offense has converted only 24% of its first downs over the past four games. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

The end of the regular season for Southern Illinois saw the Salukis go 1-3 over their last four games.

As the FCS playoffs kick off for No. 21 SIU (7-4) Saturday, Nov. 27 at South Dakota, a major focus is on how it ends offensive drives.

“Offensively, we’ve got to score touchdowns when we get in the red zone,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said. “We’ve talked about that all season long. We can’t miss plays that are there. We’re continually working at that.”

Last weekend, the Salukis were 0-for-3 in fourth-quarter red zone trips in a 35-18 loss to three-win Youngstown State.

The Salukis are earning plenty of red zone opportunities with sophomore quarterback Nic Baker at the helm. Their 51 visits to the opposing red zone this season rank fifth among 123 FCS teams nationally.

Along with 31 touchdowns, SIU has nine red zone field goals for a 78.4% scoring rate. That ranks 72nd in the nation. On 11 of those 51 trips, the Salukis have come away with no points.

Ensuring red zone efficiency in the playoffs likely will come down to SIU improving its performance on third down.

That’s one of three key matchups that Prairie State Pigskin explores heading into the postseason:

  1. SIU vs. third down

The Salukis rank 22nd nationally in first downs on offense this season, but their third-down performance over the past four games has been an issue. SIU has only a 24% success rate (12-for-51) on third downs over the last month.

On defense, meanwhile, SIU’s last four opponents have succeeded on 54% of third-down plays, well above the defense’s season-long average of 38%. Youngstown State was 7-for-12 in its upset win in Carbondale last week.

“It’s really about situational football,” Hill said. “It’s third downs on both sides of the football. It’s getting off the field. It’s converting those critical third downs (on offense). We’re talking about two or three more stops (on defense) on third down.”

2. USD front seven vs. SIU offensive line

The Coyotes (7-4) have been impressive up front on defense all season, ranking fourth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in run defense and sacks.

“Up front, they’re solid,” Hill said. “They’re tough, physical and relentless up front. The two linebackers are really good football players.”

Senior linebacker Jack Cochrane has a team-leading 92 tackles to go with nine tackles for loss. Sophomore Brock Mogensen has piled up 75 tackles. The duo is a big reason why the Coyotes allow only 116.1 rushing yards a game.

Five different South Dakota players have at least three sacks, led by seven from redshirt freshman defensive lineman Nick Gaes. SIU has allowed nine sacks in the past four games.

The Salukis likely will have the right side of its offensive line – redshirt freshman guard Chase Evans and junior tackle Lucas Davis – back for the playoff opener. Evans was held out of the Youngstown State game because of a bout with the flu. “The doctors felt like we didn’t want to chance getting other people sick,” Hill said. “We sent him home (on gameday) just to get more rest.”

Evans sustained a sprained ankle in the first quarter last week and did not return to the game. “Lucas is moving around well,” Hill said. “He’s not in a boot or anything. We’ll see how he progresses this week.”

3. Javon Williams vs. the world

After not scoring a touchdown over a five-week span during the middle of the season, Williams has returned to being SIU’s jack of all trades. He has three rushing touchdowns over the past two weeks and can be a matchup nightmare in various situations.

He is a weapon as a wildcat quarterback and out of the backfield at running back. He has a career-high 11 receptions this season and is a reliable kick returner.

Last week against Youngstown State, he threw a 40-yard laser beam of a pass to tight end Tyce Daniel that led to a field goal.

Wherever Williams is on the field, South Dakota will have to pay attention.

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