Moments after SIU came from behind to lose at South Dakota last Saturday, the Twitter coaches came out in droves.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if they went 6-5,” said one.
“Maybe not win again this year,” exclaimed another.
“Amazing how they always blow games against weak teams,” said a third.
The focus the Salukis have shown over the last five games has been impressive. If they can show that for the final four games, they will put themselves in the best position to make the final month of the year a December to remember.
All these things can only happen. That’s the beauty of sports. There is no script to follow religiously every week. If it was, do you think the Salukis would have beaten North Dakota State 38-14 back in February 2021? For that matter, do you really think Illinois would be 6-1 in football — and probably should be 7-0?
The point is that things happen. Yes, South Dakota was 1-5 in last week’s game and scored a whopping 37 points in its five losses. No, SIU shouldn’t have coughed up a 21-7 second quarter lead after dominating the Coyotes statistically.
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But then again, things happen. It was just a year ago that South Dakota was a playoff team, one that the Salukis beat on the same field to advance to a second-round beatdown of North Dakota State. Their coaches recruited these players with the express purpose of winning, not just to be a pesky opponent.
Things came together for the Coyotes in the second half. They found an offense behind a backup quarterback who was playing his first snaps of the year. Their defense figured out a way to stop an SIU offense that pretty much did what it wanted in the first half.
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Saluki players and coaches had no problem admitting after the game, as well as this week, that losing to South Dakota was a disappointing result. Regardless of the circumstances, if you’re a good team, you shouldn’t blow a fourth-quarter lead against a 1-5 opponent.
The other thing to remember about that game is this: It’s over. It won’t come back. The only thing SIU can control is the next game. As we touched on earlier this year after the 64-29 season opener against Incarnate Word, players and coaches tend to put the results of a previous game on the back burner pretty quickly.
There is another opponent for the Salukis Saturday. Northern Iowa is 4-4 overall, 3-2 in the Valley and is looking for a win to keep its own playoff hopes alive. The Panthers are 4-1 in their last five games, though none of the wins are against a team on the right side of .500.
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SIU coach Nick Hill likes to characterize each game as a one-week season. This is the Salukis’ most important game in 2022 and not just because it’s next. This is the difference between being 6-3 in the bye or being 5-4 and looking down the barrel of NDSU and Youngstown State to finish the season, needing two wins to feel assured of a playoff spot.
I’m not as sure this week as last week that 6-5 would get SIU into the field. Seven wins sure would, especially if one of them is NDSU. Eight would give the Salukis a home game on the first weekend of the FCS playoffs.
Realistically, every goal the team has set for itself is still within reach, except for the MVFC title. It will take three wins and an SDSU loss for that to happen. Things happen all the time, as we’ve talked about in this column, but the Jackrabbits losing any of their last three games would be very surprising.
Anyway, what about Saturday, you ask? OK, here it is. From the half-educated guessing department, in a tight one, SIU 31-27.
Either way, it will be fun to find out what happens. Because that’s what sport should be, after all.
–Bucky Dent covers SIU sports for Southern Illinois and also votes on the Wooden Award. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-351-5086.