3 things we learned: Bison stampede past Southern Illinois in FCS playoffs

The SIU defense allowed 389 rushing yards to North Dakota State in Fargo Saturday in a 38-7 FCS second-round playoff loss. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

After watching his team’s season come to an end Saturday in the FargoDome against eight-time FCS national champion North Dakota State, 38-7, Nick Hill summed up the game bluntly.

“That’s an old-fashioned North Dakota State butt whooping,” Hill, the sixth-year Southern Illinois head coach, said of the Missouri Valley Football Conference champion Bison.

Playing in the second round of the playoffs for the second season in a row, SIU (8-5) allowed 389 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground to No. 2 seed NDSU, which made the FCS quarterfinals for the 12th year in a row.

“Physically they wear you out, and they did that to us,” Hill said. “Up front we got worn out. It’s not a secret. They grind you. Two- and three-yard runs become 10- and 12-yard runs. It’s the formula that’s been going on a long time.”

The Salukis gained 281 yards, its lowest total against an FCS team this season.

Senior wide receiver Landon Lenoir made a diving 22-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the second quarter to trim the Salukis’ deficit to 10-7.

Over the next 13 minutes, the Bison (11-1) answered with a 13-play, 65-yard TD drive, forced a three-and-out by SIU, then followed with a 63-yard scoring drive to take a 24-7 halftime lead.

“It’s very frustrating. They kept running it and we just couldn’t stop it,” SIU defensive tackle Keenan Agnew said. “It was one of the better O-lines we’ve seen all year. It made it difficult with how well they worked together as a unit.”

Here are three things Prairie State Pigskin learned about the Southern Illinois loss:

  1. Run, run and run some more

The Bison, who have the nation’s third-ranked rushing attack, ran the ball 62 times Saturday and averaged 6.3 yards a carry. They ran it with tailbacks TaMerick Williams, who rushed for 112 yards, and Kobe Johnson, who gained 72 yards. They also used quarterbacks Cam Miller and Quincy Patterson on 20 plays combined for 145 yards.

“I thought we could’ve been a little more physical getting off blocks,” SIU senior linebacker Bryce Notree said. “We did a bad job of setting edges. We just didn’t get the job done.”

2. Stalled Salukis

Falling behind by 17 points at halftime was also caused by an SIU offense that sputtered through the first two quarters against the stingy Bison. The Salukis managed three first downs in the opening half, along with 35 rushing yards and 120 total yards on a mere 19 plays.

The Salukis punted on five of their first six drives, only one of which lasted longer than five plays.

“We just couldn’t get the ball rolling,” said SIU quarterback Nic Baker, who also played in one drive as a freshman in a 2018 season-ending loss in Fargo. “I’ve been here twice. I’m kind of tired of coming here and having the season end.”

3. Third-down struggles

Third downs, which were a struggle in the last month of the regular season for SIU, played a key role Saturday in the playoff loss. SIU managed to go 2-for-13 on offensive third-down conversions, including 0-for-5 in the first half.

“They got us in a lot of third-and-long situations, which are just hard to convert in general anywhere, and especially in this place when they get loud and they get pumped up,” Baker said of the FargoDome.

On defense, the Salukis were burned repeatedly on third down. The Bison offense was 9-for-13 on third downs, including 5-for-6 in the first half.

“I’ll tip my hat to the team that’s able to derail these guys,” Hill said of NDSU. “It’s got to come through Fargo and that’s a tough task.”

News and notes

The Salukis were without standout wide receiver Avante Cox, who injured his knee last weekend in a playoff victory against South Dakota. “We came to the building thinking he was playing,” Hill said. “He gave it a go in warmups. He tried. He wasn’t able to do anything full speed all week. He’s such a tough kid.” … NDSU was missing All-Missouri Valley Football Conference wide receiver/kick returner Christian Watson because of injury. … Five of the Bison’s nine offensive drives lasted nine plays or longer. That allowed NDSU to dominate the time of possession Saturday, 37:45 to 22:15. … Javon Williams Jr. rushed for 42 of SIU’s 61 yards in the game. … Notree had seven tackles and an interception for SIU, while Agnew had SIU’s lone sack of the day. Linebacker Zach Burrola led the team with 12 total tackles.

What’s next?

According to FBSchedules.com, Southern opens the 2022 regular season Sept. 3 in San Antonio against the University of Incarnate Word. North Dakota State faces No. 7 seed East Tennessee State next weekend in the FCS quarterfinals.

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