CARBONDALE — Two games into SIU's longest winning streak in 10 years, defensive coordinator Jason Petrino had to re-tool his squad from the inside out.
Defensive back Tre' Strong, a transfer from Utah that could play the run and the pass, hurt his knee in the Salukis' win at South Dakota. Strong was SIU's top coverage guy, leading the team with nine pass breakups at the time of his injury, and was tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles.
"It's been tough. Obviously, Tre' was playing exceptional, especially those last two games at South Dakota and then against Youngstown (State)," Petrino said. "We miss him. It's kind of an expensive injury because he did so much for us in the secondary, a high football IQ guy, and did a lot for us, and could play a lot of different positions."
At Indiana State, junior college cornerback Jonathan Thompson stepped in to Strong's role. Against Missouri State, which featured a dual-threat quarterback in Peyton Huslig, Petrino rolled with Thompson and Joe Patterson as a third safety/fifth defensive back with linebackers Cody Crider and Bryson Strong. At Western Illinois, a team that's struggled all season to move the football, started three linebackers again with Crider, Strong and Makel Calhoun.
Calhoun, a lock for the Missouri Valley Football Conference's All-Newcomer Team, is fifth on the team in tackling with 45 stops and has a team-best 7.0 sacks in 10 games. Sixth in the nation in sacks (3.36 per game), the Salukis tied a school record with nine sacks against then-No. 18 Youngstown State.
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The defense that couldn't keep the Salukis in games last year has vastly improved under Petrino and a healthy secondary (SIU lost its top-six defensive backs midway through last season). During conference play, SIU went from last place in the MVFC to fourth this year (19.4 points per game allowed) in scoring defense and total defense (145.3 yards allowed per game). The Salukis' passing defense also rose six spots, from last to fourth, and they led the league in third down defense entering the final week of the regular season.
"The nice thing about it is it's a great group that's always been willing. You can coach 'em hard and kind of get after 'em, and understand what we gotta do," Petrino said. "We've played well at times, just very consistent. The tackling is always a concern, and we've gotta make sure we're always tackling, even through the fourth quarter. We've missed a lot of tackles the last two games, and those things come back to bite."
Tackling will be at a premium Saturday, when the elephant on SIU's 12-game schedule finally arrives at Saluki Stadium. Top-ranked and undefeated North Dakota State (11-0, 8-0 MVFC) has won 32 straight games and will tie its own FCS record with a win over the Salukis (7-4, 5-2). The Bison have the only freshman better than SIU's Javon Williams Jr., quarterback Trey Lance (nine touchdowns rushing, 23 passing, zero interceptions and 2,041 passing yards) and fewer losses in the last six years than you can count on your two hands (six).
SIU has won five straight, the most since capturing 11 in a row in 2009, the last time the Salukis made the playoffs. A win today will erase any doubt SIU will be in the 24-team field, but a loss could put it's hopes of ending that 10-year drought in history.
"We just have to keep fighting it out one play at a time and it will give ourselves a chance," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "We're going to have to play really well. Nobody in the last 32 games has beaten them. You have to do all the little things. No one has beaten them in the last 10 years that beat themselves. That's the message to us."
Fortunately, one person on SIU's staff has one of those six victories over the Bison since 2014. Although he didn't make a single tackle back in 2015, Petrino helped South Dakota rally to beat NDSU 24-21 at the Fargodome that year. Coyotes quarterback Ryan Saeger threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another, and kicker Miles Bergner hit a 33-yard field goal on the final play for the win.
South Dakota's defense shut out Carson Wentz and NDSU in the second half and trailing 21-14. The Bison went on to win the national title, one of seven over the last eight years.
On Twitter: @THefferman