CARBONDALE — Before Saturday, No. 15/17 SIU looked like a lock to make its second FCS postseason appearance in seven months.
After a 35-18 upset loss to a Youngstown State team that entered the day with a 2-7 record?
“Such a sick feeling, truthfully,” said safety Qua Brown.
It might get more nauseous around 11:30 a.m. Sunday morning when the 24-team FCS playoff bracket is announced. The Salukis, who were ranked third less than a month ago, might get left out of the field. And although their body of work through 11 games says playoff team, its performance down the stretch indicates otherwise.
Going 1-3 in the final four games, even in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which is considered the toughest conference in FCS, is one thing. Losing at Northern Iowa and at home against Missouri State was aggravating but understandable.
Losing at home and trailing by double figures for the final 50-plus minutes against the Penguins (3-7, 2-6), though, might kill SIU’s at-large hopes. Players like Brown and Justin Strong, as well as coach Nick Hill, are hoping the committee looks more at the entire season than the weak finish.
“It sucks to put your future in the hands of somebody else,” Strong said, “but we are hoping we can still get in.”
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The Salukis (7-4, 5-3) found immediate trouble. A fake punt extended Youngstown State’s first drive and Jaleel McLaughlin, who gashed the run defense for 187 yards on 25 carries, scored the first of his three touchdowns on a 6-yard run at the 6:52 mark of the first quarter.
It was 14-0 Penguins 76 seconds later as they needed just two plays to turn a Javon Williams fumble into points. Demeatric Crenshaw found Bryce Oliver on a fade pattern from the 5 for the score.
A team that might have been convinced to quit if they fell behind 14-0 instead became a team that believed it would win. Youngstown State played a near-flawless game. It had just one turnover and two penalties. It converted 7 of 11 third downs and owned the ball for more than 34 minutes.
In sharp contrast, SIU coughed it up three times and committed 11 penalties, costing it 89 yards. It was only 1 of 11 on third down and failed to score on three different trips inside the Penguins’ 20.
Yet the Salukis still felt like they had a chance to come back at halftime. That’s because Nic Baker led a late drive that culminated in his 4-yard scoring strike to Strong, followed by Strong’s 2-point conversion run that sliced Youngstown State’s lead to 28-18.
“When we got within 10, I felt good that we could get it rolling,” Hill said.
Instead, the Penguins used the first drive of the third quarter to re-affirm their superiority up front. They drove 75 yards, McLaughlin covering the final 35 off the left tackle, to up the lead to 17.
There it stayed as SIU couldn’t get its passing game going against a foe that’s been vulnerable to the pass all year. Baker completed just 11 of 35 passes for 126 yards with two interceptions, harassed constantly by a pass rush that overran the right side of the offensive line.
The Salukis chewed up 264 yards on the ground, led by Strong’s 107 on just nine carries. But they never got in a position where they could lean on the running attack because of their double-figure deficit.
“They knew we were throwing and that’s a tough deal in that situation,” Hill said.
Minutes after time expired, Youngstown State players were posing for selfies with the Saluki Stadium scoreboard in the background. SIU players were running for the locker room, not looking back at a scoreboard that seemed an accuser as much as anything else.
They were hoping it wasn’t their last run off the field this year.
“I’m just trying to stay positive because you never know what might happen with the selection committee,” Brown said. “I’m just hoping we have a chance to get into the playoffs.”