Pivotal matchup ahead for Penguins
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Struggling YSU hosts improving Salukis
By Joe Scalzo
After a sluggish start to the season, “Southern Ill.” is getting well.
The Salukis, who were the class of the Missouri Valley Football Conference from 2003-09, enter Saturday’s game with Youngstown State as one of the league’s hottest teams.
That’s bad news for the Penguins, who desperately need a win after dropping two straight.
“This is a big football game for our football team,” said Penguins coach Eric Wolford, who is 2-0 against SIU. “When I came into the league they [the Salukis] were two-time champs and Coach [Dale] Lennon has those guys playing again.
“I’ve seen them drastically improve when you look back from this year to last year.”
Southern Illinois started the season 0-2, then earned back-to-back wins over SE Missouri State and Missouri State before losing to Indiana State by three touchdowns. But the Salukis saved their season with impressive wins over Illinois State (17-0) and Northern Iowa (34-31).
Statistically, SIU isn’t imposing. The Salukis average just 21 points per game (eighth-best in the conference) and give up 22 (fourth-best). They’re ninth in yards per game (317) and fifth in total defense (334 yards per game).
The key is avoiding big plays. SIU has blocked a punt in each of the last two games (both leading to touchdowns) and returned a fumble 100 yards for a TD against UNI.
Defensively, the Salukis play a 3-4 that thrives on big plays. Defensive end Kenn Boatright (8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) and Eze Obiora (7.5 TFL, five sacks) and outside linebacker Jayson DiManche (eight TFL, five sacks) are disruptive, helping SIU lead the conference in sacks (22) and turnovers (16). The Salukis’ defense is second in the conference in third-down percentage (26.9).
“You look at their defense and the first thing that jumps off the film at you is how hard they play,” Wolford said. “They are very active. They like to run a bunch of movements and stunts.”
Offensively, quarterback Kory Faulkner is a threat to run or throw. His main target is 6-foot-3, 247-pound tight end MyCole Pruitt, who leads the team in catches (32), yards (362) and touchdowns (three). Running backs Mik’ail McCall and Steve Strother both have 387 yards rushing.
“Offensively, they like to jump around as far as formations,” Wolford said. “They like to do a bunch of shifts and motions. So there’s some similarities to some of the things we do.
“They try to mess with your eyes and slow down your linebacker play by shifting and doing gaps.”
YSU quarterback Kurt Hess expects SIU to put seven or eight players near the line of scrimmage to stop the Penguins’ running game, so he said he needs to hit some passes downfield to loosen things up.
“We really need to focus on taking some big shots and making some big plays,” Hess said. “I expect some big things from the receiver group this week and from the quarterback group, just kind of making big plays in the passing game that we haven’t seen the last two weeks.”