SIU's football team has been close to conquering the giants from the FBS, losing by eight at Florida Atlantic in 2016 and by 13 at Memphis two years ago, and will try to get its first win of the season in a big fashion Saturday.
The Salukis (0-1) take on UMass (0-1) for the first time since defeating them in the FCS playoffs in 2007, when current head coach Nick Hill was the quarterback. SIU fell 44-26 at Southeast Missouri State in its season opener. The Minutemen, an FBS independent, led Rutgers 21-7 before losing 48-21 in New Jersey.
Here are three things to watch when the Salukis kick off in Amherst, Massachusetts, this afternoon:
No. 1 — Battle of the rookie starters
SIU's Stone Labanowitz and UMass' Randall West are making their second career starts for their respective programs today, after so-so performances in Week 1. Labanowitz had a touchdown pass to tight end Nigel Kilby wiped out with a penalty and a tipped pass intercepted near the 4 yard line in his opener. West, a walk-on for the UMass men's basketball team part of the last two seasons, didn't even play football last year. He rejoined the team for his senior year and won the job in training camp.
Both will face pretty good defensive lines, and both feature pretty deep running games. When the game is on the line, one of them will have to make a play.
No. 2 — SIU's depth at running back
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Wide receiver/return man Je'Quan Burton and wide receiver Sam Bonansinga may join them, but SIU's three running backs may all see carries at UMass. Tremayne Lee made the trip but will probably not see a lot of carries behind D.J. Davis, Javon Williams Jr. and freshman Romeir Elliott.
Davis averaged 5.7 yards a carry on 22 attempts against SEMO, racking up 125 yards and two touchdowns. Williams got seven tough yards in close, including a 1 yard touchdown when everyone in the stadium knew he was getting the football. Elliott was impressive in his first game, getting nine carries for 39 yards. SIU coach Nick Hill likes all three, and will probably use all three more evenly than last weekend.
If SIU can control the clock with its run game and keep the pressure off Labanowitz to throw for 300 yards, it will have a chance at the upset.
No. 3 — SIU's pass rush against UMass' OL
UMass' offensive line, led by former Saluki assistant coach Jim Jackson, started two new players at Rutgers and three others at new positions. Left guard Ray Thomas-Ishman has the most experience on the Minutemen's offensive line, with six consecutive starts and 35 overall.
SIU's defensive line came up with a whole zero sacks against the Redhawks, and will be looking to make a statement against a developing unit. The Salukis return 10 starters on defense, including all four up front, and Michigan State transfer Kyonta Stallworth and sophomore Raquan Lindsey emerged into starters. SIU has good depth up front and good talent. It's time for both to start showing up for a defense that gave up five touchdowns rushing and 529 total yards last week.