CARBONDALE — SIU football coach Nick Hill is confident his defense will keep his squad in the game against No. 18/19 Youngstown State Saturday. Now it's time for the offense to pull its weight, too.
"You gotta score three or four touchdowns each game in some of these games we're in, and we've had those opportunities," Hill said. "We were in the red zone three times (against Illinois State) and didn't score, and scored on one explosive play."
The Salukis (2-4, 0-2 Missouri Valley Football Conference) dropped their third straight game last weekend against the No. 10 Redbirds (3-1, 1-1), 21-7. Romeir Elliott's 74-yard touchdown run in the third quarter prevented SIU from getting shut out for the first time since losing 42-0 at No. 7 South Dakota in 2017. Starting quarterback Sam Straub was knocked out of that game in Vermillion, South Dakota.
SIU will not have its starting quarterback, Stone Labanowitz, when the Penguins (4-2, 0-2) visit Saluki Stadium Saturday. Labanowitz started throwing the football last week and was able to practice this week, but is likely out another week, at least, Hill said, as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Junior Karé Lyles is expected to start his fourth straight game in relief, and could get one of his best weapons back.
Senior running back D.J. Davis, the MVFC's all-purpose yards leader, returned to practice this week with a brace on his damaged elbow and could start. Davis has rushed for 362 yards and three touchdowns, caught 12 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown and returned five kickoffs for 92 yards (18.4 yards a return). He already has SIU's all-time kick return yardage record (1,798), and is third in career all-purpose yards (4,717 yards).
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Like YSU, SIU has been its worst enemy at times during an 0-2 conference start. The Salukis led third-ranked South Dakota State at the half Oct. 5 but managed just four first downs in the second half. Last weekend against Illinois State, they drove to the Redbird 15-yard line with a chance to make it a one-score game, but fell behind the chains with two chop block penalties. On a fourth-and-25 from the ISU 38-yard line, Lyles was nearly sacked but was able to get a yard after he escaped the pocket.
The Penguins led South Dakota State 21-9 on the road last weekend, but gave up an 81-yard touchdown pass and a 63-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to fall 38-28. They also lost starting quarterback Nathan Mays to an injury late, but backup quarterback Joe Craycraft threw a touchdown pass that got YSU within three points.
"My message was the same. We gotta be more consistent," YSU coach Bo Pelini said. "We can't have the breakdowns that we had that hurt us, defensively, and we have to handle adversity better at the end. Let's face it, you face a good football team, you're in a game, you're gonna have some things that go against ya. You have to handle those things the right way."
SIU has lost eight straight games against top-25 FCS opponents, and five of its last six against YSU. The Salukis' last win over a ranked team came Oct. 14, 2017, against No. 15 Illinois State, 42-7.