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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

It’s hard to classify a Week Two game, particularly against an FBS opponent, as a “must-win". But Southern Illinois University’s 45-20 win at the University of Massachusetts on Saturday was certainly much needed.

The Salukis opened the season by laying an egg at Southeast Missouri State’s Houck Stadium. That’s not to say SIU was supposed to drive to Cape Girardeau, get off the bus, do their stretches and walk away with an easy win.

The Redhawks are a quality team, as their 44-26 victory indicates, but, at least on the defensive side of the ball, the Salukis weren’t competitive in the second half. That was an ominous start for a team trying to rebuild a defense that surrendered more than 40 points per game in 2018.

That wasn’t the start the Salukis were looking for, particularly with a road trip to an FBS school in Week Two. An 0-2 start looked like a real possibility, if not a probability. When a team is coming off a 2-9 season, two losses to start the year can begin an unraveling process.

Thanks to a dominant second half, the Salukis led 17-13 at intermission, the nightmare 0-2 scenario has become moot.

The win at UMass leaves a lot to unpack.

Coaches like to say the biggest improvement teams make is between the first and second games. That is the optimistic view.

After being gashed for 500 yards total offense by SEMO, the Salukis held the Minutemen to 321. After having just one tackle for a loss against the Redhawks, the Saluki defense produced three sacks and seven tackles for a loss. In addition, SIU had a pair of interceptions.

That is the kind of defensive performance that can win games.

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But, it’s not as simple as taking this performance to the bank.

Was one of these defensive performances a fluke? If so, which one?

Power rankings had SEMO ranked 21 places higher than UMass going into the game? Did the Salukis rise to the occasion, or did they just overpower an inferior opponent? Or, was it a combination of the two?

Some of those questions will be answered Saturday when Tennessee-Martin comes to Carbondale for the Salukis’ home opener. U-T Martin comes to Carbondale with a 1-1 record. The Skyhawks defeated Northwestern State of the Southland Conference in Week One, then dropped a 45-0 decision to No. 11 Florida.

One thing is certain, if the Salukis are going to improve to 2-1, the defense that played at Amherst will have to show up Saturday.

Personally, I’m not a big believer in momentum carrying over from one game to the next. Each game is a distinct entity with its own set of variables.

On the other hand, a little confidence can do wonders for a team’s approach and performance. In recent years, the Salukis have frequently found ways to lose close games, as if they were waiting for something bad to happen.

A win like the Salukis pulled off at UMass can turn that thinking around. However, it is too early in the season to pass judgment on this team’s psyche.

Given the murderous schedule this team faces over the next 11 weeks, the Salukis will need all the confidence they can muster. It starts Saturday.

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LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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