CARBONDALE — After ending its longest losing streak of the season Saturday, the SIU football team aims to match its only winning streak of the season at Indiana State this weekend.
The Salukis (3-3, 1-2 Missouri Valley Football Conference) avoided an 0-3 start to league play with a commanding 42-7 win over previous No. 15/17 Illinois State Saturday, but now face a problem only successful teams have. How to follow up a big victory with another one.
"This is a big week for us to see the mental makeup," SIU coach Nick Hill said at his weekly press conference Monday. "You lose three games and our backs were against the wall, and I think our guys have shown they play well like that. We said as a group that this was a must-win this week. If we're sitting here at 0-3 (MVFC) and 2-4 (overall), this is a different press conference, a different mentality, a different week. We would still be playing, but what's on the line?"
SIU's first back-to-back wins since the opening two weeks of the season, and the first road win in conference play in three years are on the line against the winless Sycamores (0-6, 0-3). Indiana State, under new head coach Curt Mallory, a former Michigan linebacker, battled Eastern Illinois to a 22-20 loss and fought 19th-ranked Liberty to the end in a 42-41 defeat on the road Sept. 16. The Sycamores lost 24-13 at Illinois State Sept. 30 and then ran into the two co-leaders in the Valley in back-to-back weeks.
Second-ranked North Dakota State rolled over Indiana State 52-0 Oct. 7, and fourth-ranked South Dakota turned a 7-6 lead in the second quarter into a 56-6 victory in Vermillion, South Dakota, Saturday. Indiana State's 87 points this season are the 13th-fewest in the FCS out of 123 programs.
Indiana State has started two different quarterbacks, redshirt freshman Cade Sparks and junior Isaac Harker, who led the Sycamores to a 22-14 win at Saluki Stadium last season. With four sophomore starters on the offensive line, Indiana State has rushed for three touchdowns all season and passed for six. Wide receiver Bob Pugh leads the team with an average of 121.3 all-purpose yards a game, followed by running back LeMonte Booker (95.8 yards per game).
Booker has rushed for 516 yards and two of Indiana State's three rushing touchdowns on 113 carries, more than half the team's attempts.
SIU is focused on itself to go on the road and get its first Valley win away from Carbondale since beating Missouri State Nov. 8, 2014, 32-22. The Salukis have dropped 13 of their last 14 road games after defeating Southeast Missouri State 35-17 Sept. 16.
"Can you do it two weeks in a row? We have to wait and see on that," Hill said. "I have confidence in this group that they do, and I think through six games, we're still learning about our guys some. We have a lot of young guys that are out there playing. This is a big test for us. Going on the road after a big win. Can we keep the momentum going? Can we come out and play well with high expectations on the road in the Missouri Valley against a team at Homecoming? We will see if we have the mental makeup to do that."
Varble probable for Saturday: Salukis hope ISU win is just the beginning Hill said starting tight end Jacob Varble, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, started running Sunday and is likely to play at Indiana State.
Varble hurt his ankle in the loss to Northern Iowa Sept. 30, a game in which he caught a season-high four passes for 42 yards and a touchdown. Varble has 10 catches for 94 yards and two scores this season and is a big blocker in the run game.
The Salukis got three defensive players back from injury against Illinois State, as defensive tackle Malik Haynes, linebacker Markese Jackson and cornerback Roman Tatum returned. Jackson had a big sack, and Tatum had his first interception as a Saluki when he picked one off in the second half in his first live action of the season.