Slowing down potent NDSU run game is top priority for Salukis in 2nd-round matchup

Slowing down North Dakota State’s highly productive run game is the most important job Saturday for Southern Illinois in its second-round FCS playoff game against the Bison. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

When North Dakota State runs the football, it’s often with a who’s who of the Bison roster.

In the regular-season finale against South Dakota, seven different players had at least three carries apiece and that group included tailbacks, a fullback, wide receivers and two quarterbacks.

“When you put on the film, they play hard. They’re gritty,” Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill said. “This is a pretty typical North Dakota State team as far as physically getting after you in the run game.”

The job for SIU (8-4) on Saturday in the second round of the FCS playoffs in Fargo (2:30 p.m., ESPN-Plus) against their fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference member is to slow down a run game that has piled up over 300 yards four times this season. The Bison (10-1) average more than 6 yards a carry behind a powerful offensive line and their bevy of ball carriers.

The Salukis, meanwhile, rank 77th in the nation and eighth in the 11-team Missouri Valley Football Conference against the run. However, SIU has allowed 200 or more rushing yards only three times this season, one of which was to FBS Kansas State.

Here are three key matchups headed into Saturday’s game:

  1. SIU defense vs. NDSU’s run game

While the Salukis lean on four different running backs on offense, NDSU averages 271.8 yards a game, which ranks third in the nation, thanks to a wide range of players. They do so without a rusher who has more than 500 yards this season. Led by two first-team All-MVFC offensive linemen – left tackle Cody Mauch and right tackle Cordell Volson – the Bison have 32 rushing touchdowns spread out among 11 different players this fall. Seven players have 35 or more carries on an NDSU team that averages 6.35 yards per carry. This will be a major challenge for SIU, which allows 162 yards a game on the ground.

2. SIU wide receivers vs. NDSU pass defense

The Salukis are blessed with reliable senior Landon Lenoir (league-high nine TD catches), playmaking sophomore Avante Cox (17.2 yards per catch) and speedy freshman Izaiah Hartrup (career-high 41 catches) in the starting lineup. “Lenoir and Cox and their entire wide receiver group might be the most talented group in the league,” NDSU head coach Matt Entz said. The Bison counter with a defense that allows only 177.2 yards a game in the air, which ranks as the stingiest in the MVFC.

3. SIU CB P.J. Jules vs. NDSU WR Christian Watson

The Salukis’ top cover corner against NDSU’s most dynamic big-play threat is quite a matchup. Earlier this season, Hill said that Jules wasn’t getting as much action to his side of the field from opposing passing attacks. He has one pass breakup in the past month and his only interception of the season came in Week 2 at Kansas State. At 6-foot-3, Jules should match up on multiple occasions with Watson, a 6-5 dynamo who averages 19 yards per catch and has posted career highs this fall with 39 receptions and seven touchdowns. “P.J. has played at a high level this year,” Hill said. “He’s physical, he’s tough. He plays well in man coverage. Christian Watson is a unique player and is tough to contain. (P.J.) will have his opportunities, and he’s made a lot of those opportunities this season.”

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